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Outlaw School
Rebecca Ore
HarperCollins EOS, 320 pages

Outlaw School
Rebecca Ore
Rebecca Ore was born in Louisville, Kentucky. She grew up in South Carolina before moving to New York to attend Columbia University's School of General Studies. Later, she worked for various publishing houses and a weekly newspaper in Patrick County, Virginia, before going back to graduate school. She now lives in Philadelphia.

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SF Site: Outlaw School

Past Feature Reviews
A review by David Soyka


"The world's a more forgiving place since high school."
The irony of that statement from a character in Rebecca Ore's Outlaw School is that it is... and it isn't. It is because the cruelties and insults that once so quickly wounded us in unprotected adolescence can no longer pierce our considerably tougher adult hides. It isn't because the realities that plague adulthood -- mortality, inexplicable losses and catastrophes, unfulfilled expectations, -- are what makes the adolescent condition appear, in retrospect, considerably more benign than it seemed when we were actually enduring it.

In Ore's dystopia, the world does seem a more forgiving place than high school. Which, unfortunately, seemingly serves to subvert the novel's satiric intent. It also means that the protagonist's ordeals as a child are more compelling than her adult experiences.

Jayne's problem as a child is that she doesn't fit in. For one thing, she's smarter than she's supposed to be for her social class. For another, Jayne's unhappy mother doesn't think her daughter fully appreciates her. Jayne isn't as well-behaved as her more compliant sister Carolyn. While Jayne's step-father is sympathetic to her plight and tries to help in his own fumbling way, he is basically powerless.

Ore takes these archetypical female coming-of-age conditions and casts them in a near-future world in which drugs and technology are used to coerce conformity to social norms rooted in a 50s suburbia zeitgeist, presumably a backlash to the sexual liberalism and civil rights movements of the late 20th century. The novel starts out promisingly with this horrific tableau:

"Jayne's first memory was of terror. Cuffed by doubled bracelets from one of the mothers' jewel boxes, Jayne as three-year-old child screamed from the post where she'd been manacled. Two five-year-old children, one girl, one boy, danced around her laughing, their bare feet green around the toes from crushed grass, their hands full of weapons Jayne thought were real.

"The two mothers, lying with beers on plastic lawn chaises, smiled at the child play... 'Don't the children play together well?' the other mother, whose children were in charge, said. Jayne's mother nodded, rubbing a beer can against her bare sweaty leg."

This ongoing, parent-sanctioned cruelty, coupled with an intelligence superceding those of her designated social class, makes Jayne a "problem child." The real problem, of course, is not the child, but the social order and the duly compliant adults. As a prerequisite to attend high school, Jayne must undergo drugs to correct her "aberrant" behaviour. There are only two ways to avoid "treatment": get pregnant, in which case the State dictates cessation of drugging to protect the fetus (a nice bit of irony there) or join the Judas Girls, a society of pubescent girls dedicated to the principles of pre-marital virginity (which can be technically restored for those who've lapsed) who must sacrifice an eye to house a surveillance implant.

Though tempted by the seeming promise of security and social acceptance of the Judas Girls, Jayne instead opts to get pregnant by a boy of lower social class, thereby adding further insult to injury to her mother's embarrassment. Her parents send her away to a mental institution. There she meets a number of other socially-maladjusted folks, one of whom recruits Jayne into an underground, "outlaw" culture seemingly comprised primarily of the artistically and sexually malcontent. After giving her baby up for adoption, Jayne is trained in the use of obsolescent computer programs whose virtue it is that they are so old and archaic their operations aren't monitored by the prevailing government-controlled network. Her task is then to teach these techniques to other "outlaws." Thus, Jayne begins her career in the "Outlaw School."

At this point, an odd demarcation point is crossed. The oppressive State becomes a bit more benign, still able to inflict coercive punishment, but no longer all-powerful. There is a sort of "Don't Ask, Don't Tell" policy towards subversive activity. Seems that the government (and it's not really clear what exactly that constitutes) is fully aware of and tolerant of outlaw activity, but whenever the whim strikes, it makes the occasional arrest and imprisonment, something everyone in the Outlaw School comes to expect as their eventual fate. Jayne also discovers that the underlying surveillance infrastructure has fallen into a state of disrepair. The monitoring systems installed in the eyes of the Judas Girls now go unattended (and, as grown ups, the Judas Girls are bitter about sacrificing their sight and "seeing" none of the rewards promised them for their adolescent sacrifice).

Now perhaps this is all a metaphor for how perspectives change from childhood to maturity. Adolescent catastrophes seem considerably less so from an adult viewpoint. By the same token, notions we fully accepted and acted upon as kids may not translate into the rewards we thought came with being grown-ups. Still, there is some discontinuity with concepts -- such as a nicely bizarre take on the HMO bureaucracy -- introduced in the first section that just drop away in the second half. The same thing happens with characters, notably Jayne's mother. Actually, this happens throughout the book -- characters serve mainly as props for Jayne's "self-actualization" and are mostly dispensed with whenever the storyline moves to another setting. If you were asked to pick your favourite character, it would have to be Jayne, as she's the only one that's fully developed.

Ore does try to tie all the loose ends and lost characters together towards the end, including the reunion of Jayne with her son and a plan to subvert the existing political process (another idea mentioned more in passing than an essential narrative underpinning) but it's all a bit too pat, for my taste. It's also perhaps a bit hurried -- there's a definite sense that the author has said all she wanted to say and now just needs to end it.

The novel is much stronger if you read beyond the literal plot and resolution in which Jayne emerges triumphant. Consider the disturbing scene early in the book in which Jayne's parents play a form of golf in which the object is to hit the balls at one another. That's a nice metaphor for the damage society forces us to inflict upon one another. As it happens, everybody in this book is damaged goods in one respect or another, whether it's because they've played by the rules, or attempted to subvert them. In the latter case, as Richard Thompson puts it, "Maybe that's just the price you pay for the chains that you refuse."

Adulthood is coming to grips with whether or not the price you've paid was worth it. In which case, if that's Ore's ultimate message here, perhaps some of the lapses I've noted can easily be forgiven.

Copyright © 2001 David Soyka

David Soyka is a former journalist and college teacher who writes the occasional short story and freelance article. He makes a living writing corporate marketing communications, which is a kind of fiction without the art.

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