There is an honesty to children that we often lack as adults, not only in how they communicate with us—something sometimes marked by the absence of a filter—but in how they choose to appropriate their time. Children would rather do almost anything than allot time to something they do not care about. Whereas adult, especially adult readers, will spend hours a day pretending to like something that no one on earth has any real, viable interest in.
That’s one reason why Young Adult fiction lords it over the current version of adult fiction in terms of creativity, entertainment, and just flat out good storytelling, something underscored again for me as I reread John Bellairs’ 1973 novel The House with a Clock in Its Walls on the occasion of the release of the movie version.
I haven’t seen the movie, which looks awful, judging from the trailer. For one thing, the main character in the book, Lewis Barnavelt, a middle school boy who has just been orphaned and comes to live with his Uncle Jonathan, is fat. This hampers his life. He has a hard time making friends, he’s rubbish at sports, he struggles to keep up in myriad ways.
In the film he’s svelte. Trust Hollywood to try to make people palatable. And trust it to miss the point that we instantly connect with Lewis in the book, not because of the obesity issue, but because of the daily struggle issue. True, there is the tragedy of having lost both parents in an automobile accident, but you know how it is when something unspeakably awful befalls you: life settles back in. You might feel guilty that it does so rapidly. But life does not care that your mom died. You have your responsibilities, and you return to them, or, rather, they restart with you.
Lewis’s pot-bellied uncle Jonathan lives in a veritable haunted mansion, in part haunted by the magic he’s imbued it with: Jonathan is a wizard; his best friend, his neighbor Mrs. Zimmerman, is an even better magician. There’s just one problem: the house has a pulse that stems from a perpetually beating time-keeping device embedded somewhere in it. Said device was put there by the house’s former owners, Isaac and Selena Izard, both of whom are now dead. Well, for now.
What’s most interesting about The House with a Clock in Its Walls is that the titular problem is almost secondary to the action. It’s a work that encourages the roaming of our imaginations, because that’s just what Jonathan and Mrs. Zimmerman do for Lewis’s. A mirror, for example, reveals scenes of the past. Scenes from history that don’t always play out as history did. And Bellairs nails the details of childhood, when we seem to have this hypersensitive vision to scan the world around us.
“But one day when Lewis was hanging up his raincoat, he looked at the mirror and saw a Mayan step pyramid in a steaming green jungle. He knew that the pyramid was Mayan because he had a picture of it among his Viewmaster slides.”
That last qualifying sentence nails it. That’s exactly how we bring our old experiences to bear on our new ones, so that we might better process the latter and learn where it is distinct from our own past. Cats feel with their whiskers; children, and some of our smartest adults, feel via juxtaposition, then acceptance of what has changed.
What hasn’t changed for Lewis is a desire for a friend. There is a boy named Tarby who is the cool kid at school. Sports star, tough, a voice that commands respect. He’s also insecure himself, and when he’s knocked down a peg by a broken arm that limits him on the ball field, he’s more welcome to Lewis’ overtures of friendship, and the two become friends, of a sort, for a while.
But it’s a bit like the fox and the hound—things change. The arm mends, Tarby is threatened by Lewis’s intelligence, and Lewis is so desperate to keep his lone friend, that he makes a boast he thinks he’ll probably be unable to live up to, and later wishes he had been: he vows to raise the dead.
Is there a better metaphor for childhood loneliness? When you’re a kid, and you feel alone and disliked, it can simultaneously feel like there is nothing you would not do to silt over that hole, that emptiness. As it were, Lewis raises someone from the dead, but it’s not a stranger, as he thinks, but rather Selena Izard, who takes up residence in the house across the street from where Lewis lives with his Uncle Jonathan. She has a key that she’ll use on the clock buried in the walls of her former abode. The mechanics of this aren’t super clear—just as they weren’t super clear when Mary Shelley reanimated the dead—but all we need to know is that when the time is right, said key will help the clock trigger the day of judgment. The living will die, the dead will rise. Trouble!
A YA novel like this is in service to its readers (which adult literary fiction almost never is). It is invested in the person holding the book, so to speak. The work rests upon what that person takes away. That person is the client. The client may have a soul in need. The client may need joy, entertainment, a glorious combo. The client could perhaps benefit from a gutting emotional experience. I feel like there should be a third category of fiction for adults that is not genre—we all know what genre is—and that is not literary fiction. A third category where the fiction is artful, affecting, but also inclusive, compelling. As open to all comers as genre work, but with greater nuance, quality, exactingness, a higher ceiling.
What any great writer of fiction knows, on some level, is that for all of the external things you have playing out, in terms of the plot—and they can be crazy things; suicides, closets that open up into other worlds, knife attacks, flying horses, hydra-headed shore sentinels—the real action has to take place on the inside of the characters. You can storyboard a plot, but you also have to be able to storyboard, you might say, an internal, emotional journey.
And that’s exactly what Bellairs does with Lewis. A lot of the novel features him hanging out with Jonathan and Mrs. Zimmerman. They talk, play poker, drink hot chocolate, and through what they share, and the magic flowing through them and manifesting in front of them, whole worlds meet up and mesh. And it just feels good as a reader to be in on this. You feel like you belong, even as you’re getting anxious that this horrible day of death is a’coming.
As you can probably guess, that outcome is thwarted. But what you end up caring most about in the end is what Lewis used to care the most about, and that’s his friend situation. The Tarby matter comes to a resolution, and from the old comes an awareness of the new, which stops this book with a fresh start. That is what we both want and need from our very best fiction, because that is both what we most want and need in this life, as any child knows, as does any adult who refuses to waste time and energy deluding themselves more than they have to.