by Francine Prose
Published by HarperCollins
330 pages, 2003
The Stepford Students
Reviewed by David Abrams
Francine Prose's novel After opens with the news that three students at Pleasant Valley High School just killed five kids and three teachers and critically wounded 14 others. As word of the Columbine-style shooting spree spreads through nearby Central High School, the students are understandably shocked.
Little do they know the worst is yet to come at their own school.
In her first book written for young adult readers, Prose (Blue Angel, Household Saints) paints a terrifying picture of conservative politics run amok as overzealous adults try to strip away civil liberties. Out of grief comes a witch hunt designed to root out non-conformity and individual expression.
Heady stuff for a novel geared to teens, but Prose pulls it off masterfully with a plot that tightens the tension as it goes along. The 330 pages can be read in one sitting, but the nightmarish paranoia continues to cling long after you've set the book aside.
As the title suggests, it's what happens after the Pleasant Valley shootings that's at the heart of the book. First, a grief and crisis counselor named Dr. Willner arrives at Central. Then come the metal detectors, and the strict dress code (no Commie red is allowed), then the random drug tests and the subversive "Bus TV" where students watch ultra-patriotic "Great Moments in History" every day on the ride to and from school.
The story is chillingly familiar. We read about these things in our newspapers all the time -- for every catastrophic event, there's an equally catastrophic overreaction.
For Tom Bishop, the novel's narrator, and his best friends Brian, Avery and Silas (part of a sub-clique known as the "Smart Jocks"), life gets increasingly more rigid and unforgiving with each ring of the school bell. A far cry from life at Central before the school killings:
Everyone had a place; you were allowed to be who you were. I mean, whoever you were. It was totally live and let live. But after Pleasant Valley, all that began to change.
It all starts with Willner, the creepy counselor.
Dr. Willner was very tall, with a beard. He looked a little like Abraham Lincoln, but without the sweet-natured saintly part.
He reminds Tom of the Lincoln robot at Disney World, which should remind astute horror fans that the Hall of Presidents is where one of those Stepford husbands used to work. In one way, Willner wants to turn the entire school population into robots. The Stepford Students.
Willner speaks in a stream of psychobabble and, in nightly e-mails sent home to the parents, he encourages them to start lacing their conversations with "sharing," "reaching out," and "exploring our feelings." Those parents who succumb to Willner's suggestions soon begin acting like pod people straight out of Invasion of the Body Snatchers (a movie which becomes central to the novel's plot).
The repression begins cloaked in good intentions (as most repression does) as the adults merely want to prevent another Pleasant Valley tragedy from happening in their town. At his first school assembly, Willner tells the student body: "We can no longer pretend to ourselves that it can't happen here. And so we must change our lifestyle to keep our community safe and make sure that it won't happen. It means sharing our feelings, becoming better people. Beginning the hard work of healing and recovery. Working through our fear and grief. And in the process maybe giving up some of the privileges that we may have taken for granted. I am afraid that circumstances make it a virtual certainty that some of the privileges that we all have enjoyed may have to be taken away."
Remind you of something someone in the echelons of our government might have said in the past two years? Under the Willner Plan, students are expected to put the good of society before their own individual well-being. After echoes with the loud goose-steps of civil-liberty threats from McCarthyism to the Patriot Act. (I have to be careful what I write -- I never know when They might be listening)
After only loses some of its toxic bite in its final pages as Prose tries to pull out of the story's bleak nose-dive into a paranoid nightmare worthy of The Twilight Zone. The novel ends on a note of half-hearted optimism -- as if the author stepped back to take a look at the dystopian landscape she'd painted and realized it might be too apocalyptic for young minds to handle. After all, things could never really get that bad, could they? Could they? | June 2003
David Abrams is a January Magazine contributing editor. He has written for Esquire, Glimmer Train Stories, The Greensboro Review, The Readerville Journal and other literary magazines.