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Book Review – Truancy Origins by Isamu Fukui
Roger Waters wrote in the classic Pink Floyd song Another Brick in the Wall, Part 2 the now famous lyrics:
We don’t need education.
We don’t need any thought control.
Isamu Fukui seems to agree with those sentiments in his latest novel Truancy Origins, a book that fuels rebellion in the education system, frees minds, and makes certain students aren’t just another brick in the wall. Or at least, it believes itself to be rebellious. But like most teenage rebellions, it’s a bit unconvincing. More possession than substance. A remake of Rebel Without a Cause with Muppets playing the leading roles.
Still the book is guaranteed to appeal to its intended audience, disinterested, rebellious teenagers. And the straight-A students who want to be disinterested, rebellious teenagers. Some children do not want to go to school – some even hate school – seeing it as some kind of exquisite torture invented by adults to punish them. (So close to the truth.) Going to school can seem like a waste of time and ineffective. Good for the social event, but not much else. An authoritarian system run by power hungry fools, centered more on statistics than students. And these impressions are correct. The education system is broken – at worst in need of a complete overhaul. It must be closely monitored and not followed blindly. Because when schools fail to educate, they have failed in their primary responsibility. And many schools fail to educate. The real question is who deserves the blame for this problem.
Twin brothers Zen and Umasi grew up privileged. Silver spoons and Nintendo Wiis galore. Adopted by the Mayor of the City – a kind of neo-fascist educator – when they were six months old, Zen and Umasi have conflicting views on school. Umasi values education and gets good grades. Zen – incredibly intelligent but bored – despises the time he spends in school and acting. Soon the brothers discover the truth about the city’s education system. A truth that shatters their world, causing them both to run away from home.
For Zen, the injustices within the City’s education system are appalling. Bad, actually. An evil that must be violently overthrown. Malcolm X style. And he’s trying to accomplish that, gathering an army of Truants to fight the City’s law enforcement. While Umasi harbors many of the same attitudes as his brother, violence is not his answer. It’s not just any kind of answer. So he stands against his brother. Against his twin. Vow to stop Zen before it’s too late.
Truancy Origins is a book trying to be many things. There are the exciting action-oriented scenes as the two brothers fight each other, often described in highly visual, cinematic detail. These fights are well done and engaging, and Fukui shows real talent in writing them. The battles themselves resemble sci-fi, the bastard love child of science fiction and kung fu popularized by The Matrix.
And then there’s the other part of the book, which tries to be a social commentary on education. Fukui really misses his chance to say something substantive in these moments. And the book suffers for it. His exploration of the ills of the education system is shallow. He identifies the problems, but is not as convincing with the answers, often substituting fortune-cookie mysticism for real wisdom. Think Caine in Kung Fu. One must take into account the young age of the author – Fukui’s eighteen years – and the intended young adult audience. Still writing about social issues, Fukui is expected to have a certain depth and quality to his arguments, a maturity of thought. This is lacking, which is disappointing because the opportunity for a terrific social statement is there. Fukui just longs for it.
Zen and Umasi are both great characters, each possessing real charisma. Umasi’s character throughout the novel, however, is less believable. His transformation from book nerd to super-badass seems forced. Most of the side characters are plot devices, their presence in the story only furthering other aspects of the story. The main antagonist of the novel, Rothenberg, is one-dimensional to the point of caricature, only motivated by his extreme hatred of children. He is an excess of evil, showing absolutely no redeeming qualities. No gray area, nothing interesting.
The dialogue is sometimes awkward and stilted. I couldn’t imagine teenagers talking like that. Unless they watched a lot of BBC. It was too appropriate, less like spoken word and more like written word conversations. How to read Middlemarch. But with kung fu.
As a high-octane-kung-fu-sci-fi-multi-distracted-action extravaganza, Truancy Origins works. Really good. Only when the novel turns to the realm of social activism does it suffer, struggling to say something both substantive and important. Still Truancy Origins should resonate with its young adult audience, with its snarky, rebellious attitude toward authority and education. Like literary wish fulfillment for wannabe rebels. Middle finger to the man. Graffiti on the Wall.
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