Warning: Contains Spoilers!
Some books are harmful, even dangerous.
Aufwader’s Thoughts: The Mooncaster Trilogy, as I long ago began to call the Dancing Jax books in the absence of an official series title, is many things at once. As Matt said in the Up Next post, it is confrontational. It was at the time of publication, and still is, widely misunderstood by readers and critics alike. It goes where no Robin Jarvis series has gone before, or indeed, many young adult series’ on the bookshop shelves of today. Whatever you’ve heard about these books, whatever conclusions you’ve come to if you’ve read them, there’s one thing I think everybody will agree on: this trilogy has a strong personality.
This was the first series in Robin Jarvis canon that I had the opportunity of reading more or less as it came out. Dancing Jax was published in early 2011 – I didn’t catch wind of it until it appeared in my local library about a year later, but I ended up following the release of the next two books closely, which, if you know about Robin’s publication history, you will guess was an adventure in itself. To this day I find it darkly comedic that the one Robin Jarvis book to turn up when I wasn’t looking for Jarvis offerings at all was the one which would signal the greatest departure from ‘Robin Jarvis canon’ as a whole. Dancing Jax was, and still is, a revelation.
Let’s dive right in, then. Oh boy.
I think anybody who reads Martin Baxter’s entry will immediately know that something is up with author intent here. Martin’s statement about harmful books is a very bold move to make in the opening pages of what was marketed as a piece of young adult fiction, and has probably contributed to the book being misinterpreted quite regularly.
In an example from my own experience, I can remember handing it to a friend. He read the first page, and was instantly repelled. ‘What point is the author trying to make?’ I can remember him saying, indignantly. ‘You don’t just advocate censorship and not elaborate, it’s completely ham-fisted.’ Right away, Dancing Jax had elicited a strong response, and in that way, it had worked perfectly.
I admit that the intent of this series was lost on me up until the second book came out, so, with the memory of my own sad confusion and my friend’s offended horror uppermost, I feel I owe it to this project to, er, lay all the cards on the table.
The Dancing Jax books are a parody. They are a deconstruction of the trends popular in young adult fiction at the time of writing, of the publishing industry, the British press, the way British history is commodified, celebrity and mass media culture, the New Age movement, and quite a few other things besides.
This series is one giant ‘haw haw haw’ from start to finish, so please, be offended. Be confronted, be aghast, be shocked and awed. Hate the protagonists, loathe the antagonists, groan as the characters make pretentious speeches about the state of society and exchange tired pop culture references. Wince at the tabloid-like portrayal of Felixstowe and its inhabitants, shiver at Austerly Fellows’ way-too-realistic cult leader act. Call it ‘horror’, call it ‘genre-busting’, call it a seething, riotous mess or a new era in writing for young people. The point is that you’re thinking, and engaging, and reacting. The point is that you’ve joined the dance.
Matt’s Thoughts: Where to start with this one? While the details are coming back to me, I still remember clearly the first time I read this, the sense that Robin Jarvis was trying something radically new. First up, there’s that outlandish cover. It’s garish, it’s monstrous, it’s terrifying. What is that creature with the blazing red eyes on the front?
Then the use of language, even before we arrive at the start of Chapter 1, signals that this is going to be a book for an older audience. And once we arrive at chapter 1, there are even more tip-offs that we’ve arrived in an older Jarvis world – the off-colour dialogue (e.g. Tommy’s comment about ‘girly mags’) and the adult concepts (e.g. the insinuation that Shiela, barely 20, is the lover of Jezza, seemingly a lot older).
Which, of course, all sets up an expectation: if Mr Jarvis is pitching the overall story at an older audience, does that mean that the scares and darkness are going to be much worse as well? In other words, if mouse-peeling rats, werewolves, and ginormous serpents were all fair game for 8-12 year-olds, what on earth is he going to do to torment older teenagers?
The answer is – quite a lot. But we shall take that ride together for mutual moral support!
I love the way this book opens with two completely opposite welcomes to the same story. One is a few paragraphs from Martin Baxter, a character we have not yet met, warning us that some books are harmful, even dangerous. They should be banned or destroyed. Then over the next page, we have an old-school introduction from Austerly Fellows written in the 1930s. It invites us to read these ‘rousing pages’ so that we can ‘escape the travails of those earthly measures that daily erode your humble spirit’ and offers a promise that ‘we shall coddle you, safe and close’.
This, of course, sets up a fascinating theme right out of the gate: could something that seems to offer comfort and escape from the cares of life be such a bad thing? Surely that would be good, right?
This paradox of good and bad being mixed together next comes in the form of Jezza’s speech to Shiela about the shallowness of spending your time on the internet, inventing stuff (which is a rather amusing sentiment to be found in a fictional story) and ignoring the evils of real life. But this is paradoxical because Jezza himself is a low-life substance abuser breaking into a house to steal stuff.
The character of Jezza (certainly, as he appears at the beginning of this book) is a fascinating one that has taken on a new resonance for me in the last few months. I was recently watching a film about the Snowtown Murders, one of the word cases of serial killing that Australia has ever seen. The murders themselves, which took place in South Australia over a period of nearly 10 years were horrific both because of the methods of murder employed (which I won’t go into on this blog) but also because there was not just one killer. Instead, the crimes were committed by a gang of three or four men, led by one John Bunting.
Bunting himself was well noted for having a charismatic personality and could be quite charming at times. But the logic that he used to justify the murders, which all took place amongst lower-class Australians in fringe suburbs, was to convince his followers that the people they were targeting were themselves low-lifes that didn’t deserve to live. In short, he put forward a moral justification for one of the most horrific things to happen on Australian soil.
You get a similar feel from Jezza – he gets his followers and lackeys onside because he has a certain amount of wisdom as he analyses society. But the paths he leads them down aren’t ones that make that society any better …
Finally, the other big thing is that Robin firmly dates the book in 2010 by throwing in numerous pop culture references, more than any had that previously been seen in the Jarvis Universe. In this case, it’s the graffiti on the walls being a nod to British pop of the 70s. So what better way to end this post than with the Wombles singing Minuetto Allegretto?