Tuesday, March 17, 2009

Book Review: Project X by Jim Shepard

In the aftermath of the Columbine High School Shootings in 1999, countless reporters and commentators repeated similar versions of the same phrase over and over again: "People are wondering how something like this could happen."

Jim Shepard knows.

Project X is one of the few books that has ever honestly attempted to get into the minds of people like Eric Harris and Dylan Klebold, or the other teenager gunmen who later patterned themselves after the Columbine incident.

Most seem to take comfort in explanations that support preexisting phobias and prejudices; violent video games and movies, popular music, poor parenting skills, drug abuse, white supremacy, and even homosexuality have often been blamed for driving these kids to violence. Project X refuses to fall into this simple-minded trap. Edwin and Flake, the two teenage characters in the book, are portrayed as the complex personalities that people really are, and not the easily categorized stereotypes that people tend to see each other as.

The protagonists in Shepard's book aren't simply misanthropic loners by choice. They are bullied and harassed on a daily basis, in and out of school, by people they know and complete strangers, and by adults as well as teenagers. The toll of this repeated physical abuse, egged on by their inability (both physically and emotionally) to fight back, forces them to withdraw from society. But they aren't presented as pure victims of an uncaring system. Their self-imposed alienation and inability to explain their situation to someone who could assist them, coupled with increasingly anti-social and reactionary behavior, just makes them easier targets and escalates the situation even further.

If this were just about bullies, the playgrounds across the country would be a never ending battlefield (and for some, it is). There are often other influences involved, and Shepard exposes some of these as well. The psychological instability of both characters is well displayed, but never left as a final scapegoat. Allusions to a previous head injury possibly causing some of Edwin's emotional problems, as well as Flake's apparent sexual confusion and sometimes aggressive domination over Edwin in their friendship, add to the pressures and overwhelming confusion. It is all too easy to forget that some kids live with stress levels that often drive adults to nervous breakdowns.

Shepard doesn't just trap these characters in a world where no one cares about them or notices the problem. Edwin's parents are well aware that their son is troubled, and try to both understand and lend emotional support. But their awkward attempts to reach out never manage to break through the confusion and despair. Their rebellious behavior makes Edwin and Flake an easy target for the scorn of teachers and other adults, but even some of them attempt to help through positive reinforcement, and enrolling Edwin in an after-school program for troubled youth.

The true brilliance of Project X is that Shepard manages to easily evoke sympathy, and even empathy, for Edwin and Flake. Most readers will no doubt find themselves not only wanting to help them, but wondering what could have been done differently. Through fictional characters and events, Shepard is giving the reader a glimpse behind the curtain that hides most of these kids until it is far too late to do anything but pick up the pieces and wonder to ourselves what went wrong?

I have read other reviews of this book, and I am surprised by two common reactions to Project X. One is the repeated comparison of Project X to Vernon God Little, which is unfair to both books. Vernon God Little is a great book in its own right, but only uses troubled youth as a foundation for its story, and in no way attempts to expose or explore the serious issues that Project X does. This is almost like comparing Gus Van Sant's Elephant to Napoleon Dynamite.

The other reaction is from those who complain about the book's ending. Some readers wanted more about the aftermath of the events at the end of the book, and felt the need for closure. I feel that these people missed the point entirely.

Project X is not about school shootings. It isn't about the victims or their families, the assailants or their families, the media coverage afterward, or the attempts by those affected to somehow pick up the shattered remains of what used to be their lives. The truth is, there is no real closure after such a tragedy.

Project X is about what happens before these tragic events. It is about the children who become lost amongst us, the demons that plague and influence them, and most importantly, what finally drives them over the edge. Jim Shepard knows the truth; the only way to save ourselves from them is to learn how to save them from themselves.

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