Thus revealed, the creature buried its nose in the tire-tilled soil...
February 26, 2018
William Sleator and the terrible, horrible, no good, very bad character
Category: Books

So in the last two weeks I've read three books by William Sleator: The Beasties (1997), The Boxes (1998), and Marco's Millions (2001). (That I read three books in that time isn't impressive -- Sleator wrote young adult science fiction, so the books go by fairly quickly.) I bought The Boxes and Marco's Millions years ago when I worked at a book store; Sleator's books had neat cover art (The Boxes features an alien crab thing on its cover; I'm a sucker for alien crab things) and, as frequent residents of our clearance shelves, the titles were cheap to boot. Apparently I was more interested in the covers and the price, since I'm just now getting around to reading the books themselves.

Of those three books, I imagine The Beasties will prove to be the most memorable to me -- I'm sure I'll write more about it some other time, and I'm sure I'll puzzle over the events of the climax for years to come. For this entry, however, I'm going to talk about two-book series that comprises The Boxes and Marco's Millions. Specifically, while there are a lot of neat things worth discussing in the books (frex, Marco's Millions features a naked singularity, which affects gravity and the passage of time for characters as they approach it), I'm going to talk about one particular character. The character isn't fascinating in the least, but I did find it fascinating how inexplicably unsympathetically this character is portrayed. Spoilers follow.

Though Marco's Millions technically comes before The Boxes in terms of the stories' chronology (ie, it is a prequel to the earlier book), we first meet the character of Ruth Levi in The Boxes. She's described in unflattering terms to say the least: she's rendered as a fat, ugly woman (which isn't to say that fat necessarily equates to ugly, but it's clear from the narrator's repeated references to her puffy face and waddling gait that these traits aren't supposed to be at all positive) with frizzy, greying hair; she also eats too much and spends all of her leisure time smoking cigarettes in front of the television. Beyond Ruth's appearance, she's thoroughly disagreeable -- she's constantly complaining about how other characters don't respect her and always making lamely insulting or threatening comments about characters who aren't present to defend themselves.

And yet Ruth is the aunt of the 16-year-old protagonist, Annie -- as well as Annie's legal guardian, since both of Annie's parents were killed in a car accident shortly after Annie was born. In The Boxes, a first-person narrative, we see Ruth through Annie's eyes. Now, it's not unusual for fictional guardians to be disagreeable characters, but I found it interesting that, whereas these characters usually assume guardianship of their charges later in the children's lives, Ruth has had Annie since the latter's infancy -- Ruth is basically the only parent Annie has known. Yet their relationship is wholly devoid of warmth: there is mutual dislike; Ruth constantly calls Annie an ungrateful brat and berates her at every opportunity. Ruth also clearly resents the girl's positive relationship with Marco, Ruth's older brother and Annie's uncle. There is little love between the siblings as well: Marco (in his absence) is a frequent target of Ruth's insults, and Marco rarely misses an opportunity to criticize Ruth when speaking to Annie. Early in the book, Annie notes that Marco, despite being the older brother, looks much younger than Ruth -- whereupon Marco remarks that Ruth's "rotten disposition had prematurely aged her." (We learn in Marco's Millions that Marco looks younger because he has access to alien technology and worlds that have caused him to experience time differently; in the first book, when he is twelve, he experiences five hours that Ruth experiences as twenty-three years. So while he couldn't have told Annie the real reason for their differing appearances, he probably could have found an explanation that didn't involve putting his sister down.)

So Ruth, as she is depicted in The Boxes, is terrible and everyone thinks so. And even though I don't think the story is lacking for not going into more detail about it, I admittedly wondered what had happened to this character in her youth to make her so awful. I wondered if there was something in her and Marco's history that explained their animosity toward each other. And so, when I picked up Marco's Millions, which takes place when Marco and Ruth -- and Lilly, their sister and later Annie's (deceased) mother -- are children, I thought that perhaps Sleator would include something that gave a little more insight into Ruth or at least rendered her in a somewhat more sympathetic light.

And... nope. Even as a seven year old, Ruth sucked. She was annoying; she frequently cried to get her way; she was a tattletale. Her parents complained about her; her siblings complained about her. As a teenager she and her friends mostly sat around insulting other kids; the narrator notes that every night she sneaks downstairs to get more food. At one point, Ruth surmises that her sister having a vivid dream about Marco (though Marco is on an alien world, Lilly is able to help Marco in her dreams; during these dreams she talks in her sleep) -- and, rather than puzzling over how this is possible or rejecting the idea and walking away, Ruth determines that Marco's return would mean less attention for her. Accordingly, though she's still not wholly convinced that her sister isn't just having a nightmare, Ruth actively seeks to break the connection by waking her sister up. And when Marco, still twelve years old, emerges from the basement to find "an unattractive, overweight woman... puffing on a cigarette and watching a strangely futuristic TV," Ruth -- rather than responding with joy or awe and asking questions about where her brother has been for the last twenty-three years and how he's still the same age he was when he vanished -- seems more pleased that she's now technically the older sibling and implies that he's not entirely welcome in her house. It's not even an overtly cruel reaction, but it is strange and distant and kinda mean, and it's entirely consistent with Ruth's shitty character. Ruth comes across so consistently poorly that I kept expecting to find a footnote explaining that the character was deliberately modeled on Sleator's mother-in-law.

Like, I'm used to characters like this on television -- particularly on primetime soap operas. But even in those instances it's often clear that someone (the writers, if no one else) finds this character compelling, and usually it's at least possible to see the character somehow sympathetically. I guess characters like this also appear in books (and plays?), but they don't tend to stick around for the entirety of the story, and the comments other characters make about them often serve as comic relief. Here, even though the other characters' assessments of Ruth seem accurate -- and understandable, given how awful (yet in a dull sort of way; Ruth never rises to the level of a proper villain) the character is -- nothing anyone says about Ruth is particularly funny. So other than the possibility that Sleator had a grudge against some real person and wrote Ruth to further it, I can't quite fathom why he would create such an inexplicably awful character.

-posted by Wes | 4:22 pm | Comments (0)
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