October 1, 2012

Rage: A Psychtember Review

Patient: Rage by Jackie Morse Kessler

(from Goodreads):  
"Missy didn’t mean to cut so deep. But after the party where she was humiliated in front of practically everyone in school, who could blame her for wanting some comfort? Sure, most people don’t find comfort in the touch of a razor blade, but Missy always was . . . different. That’s why she was chosen to become one of the Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse: War. Now Missy wields a new kind of blade—a big, brutal sword that can cut down anyone and anything in her path. But it’s with this weapon in her hand that Missy learns something that could help her triumph over her own pain: control. A unique approach to the topic of self-mutilation, Rage is the story of a young woman who discovers her own power and refuses to be defeated by the world.

*Note: there are spoilers discussed in this review, particularly the Axis 2 and Axis 4 sections. You have been warned!


Axis 1. Characters

You have to feel pretty bad for Missy, because she doesn't have a lot of support. Still, I never really fully understood why she started cutting. We know she was being teased and bullied, but we don't see a specific trigger that sets it off. I also had some trouble getting a clear picture of her relationship with her parents; she mentions at one point that they neglect her most of the time and only pay attention to her when she's their "perfect" daughter, but at another time she says they would hound her if they found out about the party. This seems to be a bit of a conflicted portrayal — are they interested in what's going on with her or not?

For a sister, Sue really sucked. She acted very cruel towards Missy most of the time, more like one of the bullies at school. Sue tried to offer Missy help in the way she knew how, but really, it probably did more harm than good.

Side characters like Trudy, Erica, and Becky could have been fleshed out, as we don't really get to know them. I also wish we'd gotten more from the horse Aries' perspective, and been shown more of his personality — he seems nice enough to Missy most of the time, even though he's a war horse! It was interesting to see a different portrayal of the character Famine than in Hunger, though. 

As for the romance that develops between Missy (as War) and Death, it is admittedly pretty cute. The whole idea of Death and War "working well together" makes sense, but it's kind of funny that it's being used romantically as well. I thought it was a little out of character for Death to get involved in a relationship (I don't know if Death would make himself vulnerable...does he even have a heart?) but at the same time I suppose it rounds out his character more. Jackie Morse Kessler's Death is an unusual take on "Death" to begin with — but he's the best character in the series so far, in my opinion! And he gets most of the good lines in this book, as usual.

Axis 2. Premise/plot

I felt that the pacing of this one was a little more sluggish than Hunger, and not a lot actually happens. The same internal struggle Missy faces comes up again and again (just prompted by different things). This struggle of whether she should give into her brutal impulses, or whether she can accept/control them without resorting to violence, is the crux of this book. 

It follows a similar storyline structure to the first in the series. Our protagonist has reached a fairly low point in her life. She receives and accepts Death's offer and begins to figure out her role as a Rider. She meets another Rider, has some more trouble with her problem, travels and sees how bad things are in another part of the world. Then she hits an even rougher spot, there's a big conflict scene, she wins out, has a large realization, and then things get better. The major difference between Hunger and Rage in terms of plot is the ending (spoiler, highlight to read: Lisa resigns from being a Rider, whereas Missy stays War). 

I thought Missy accepted the existence of the Riders of the Apocalypse and her role as War way too easily, like she understood it intuitively. It felt unrealistic that she took everything pretty much in stride. I suppose the author didn't want it to be same as how Lisa reacts in Hunger, but you'd think Missy would have demanded a bit more explanation. 

The ending also didn't seem that believable, in that Missy solves the problem in the abstract, but then this is translated immediately to the real world. Just because she has resolved things cognitively doesn't mean it will have an impact at once on her behavior. I feel like there would have been more of a learned behavioral pattern that she'd have to try harder to break (spoilers: after her "revelation" she just doesn't feel the need to cut anymore, and I'm not sold on that). However, the approach the author took to showing the battle between Missy and War was pretty cool.

The epilogue wrapped up the story too neatly, although at least it's not all resolved in a happy manner for Missy. However, it seemed like the author was trying to jam-pack everything into this epilogue, when it could have been included in the actual story instead. I would have been interested to see the guidance counselor sessions and Missy's parents' reactions, and I feel like we got cheated out of seeing that because it all happens in the epilogue!

I did like the last paragraph, as it perfectly ties together the concept of War with Missy's difficulties. I think it's important that the author acknowledges it's an internal conflict Missy is dealing with, and that just as Famine starves herself, War wars with herself.

Axis 3. Writing Style

The writing in Rage is quite repetitive. A lot of the same analogies and metaphors are used again and again (for instance, "razor kisses," blood imagery, and the idea of a glass jar around Missy's heart). However, Jackie Morse Kessler definitely does a good job of descriptions, managing to give the reader a flavour of things with powerful imagery and combining words together in interesting ways.

In particular, I enjoyed the scene where Missy wanders through a party and causes havoc. The way this was portrayed really conveyed the power of War's presence in influencing people in ways they weren't even aware of.

Axis 4. Psychological Accuracy

Rage very effectively shows the horrible cruelty that teens can inflict on each other. It's ruthless and vicious what Adam does to Missy, and the level the other girls stoop to is despicable. The worst part of it is, Missy is a girl who so clearly needs help, but instead she becomes a pariah because of her cutting. It feels so wrong that this girl, who needs all the support she can possibly get, is being tormented because of evidence demonstrating how emotionally distraught she is. Rage also realistically shows how cellphones and technology can exacerbate the problem further. 

At first, you might wonder why Missy is chosen as War, because she's not violent with others, just herself. But the author takes a broader viewpoint of War, and part of War is passion; as I understand it, Missy has difficulty handling emotion, and in order to deal with it, she cuts. This seems to match the motivation for many individuals who self-harm in real life. We're given some good descriptions of how Missy feels about cutting — what it does for her, how she feels after, how it gives her clarity and relief. Despite this, though, I never truly understood why she was feeling like this and why she would cut. 

What I think is less accurate in this portrayal is the quick resolution to Missy's self-injurious behaviour. We're told in the epilogue that she starts spending time with the guidance counselour at school, and then ends up telling her family about her cutting. This is certainly a step in the right direction for Missy, but I am still very doubtful that she could break this pattern of behaviour so easily. It is acknowledged that she could cut again in the future, but the whole thing seems a little too "cold turkey" to be believable. Indeed, self-injury can become something of an addiction — and addictions are notoriously difficult to just quit.

Validity Score: How psychologically accurate was Rage?

Axis 5. Miscellaneous

I was a little disappointed with this one and didn't find it as good as Hunger. Of course, with the first in the series it was a new world and concept we were being introduced to, whereas Rage doesn't have that novelty aspect. Personally, I also identified a bit better with Lisa from Hunger, finding her character more sympathetic and her problem (specifically, an eating disorder) more interesting.

Patient shares symptoms with: Scars by Cheryl Rainfield, Willow by Julia Hoban

Patient's statement:

"She lifted the razor in her right hand, holding it between her thumb and first two fingers. She heard Adam and the others call her names and accuse her of horrific things, laughing at her all the while. She felt her soul crumple, squeezed into pulp. She tried to breathe and failed. 

In her mind, Adam's voice whispered: Freak.

Tears stinging her eyes, she sliced down."

Diagnosis: 3 shooting stars.

For more information about bullying and self-harm, see here and here.

Note: this book contains some coarse language and mature content (both sexual and violent).

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