Review of the Day: Spy Runner by Eugene Yelchin (bonus interview included)
Folks, as strange as this may sound I’m doing something a little different with today’s review. Under normal circumstances I’ll review a book without letting the author, the publisher, or pretty much anyone involved with the project know what I’m up to. But just as I was gearing up to review this puppy, I was contacted by the publisher and asked if I had any questions for Mr. Yelchin. Well . . . yeah, actually. When it comes to this book I have a lot of questions. So for the very first time I’ll be reviewing the title, and then include afterwards an interview where Mr. Yelchin will try to answer a barrage of very specific questions. If you have questions about the book to, here is where you may find some answers. Enjoy!
Don’t let it get around, but have you noticed that a lot of the middle grade fiction books out for kids this year (2019) are horrendously, incredibly, shockingly depressing? I mean, you get a bit of that every year, but 2019 appears to be shaping into something particularly dreary. There’s a running gag amongst my librarians that if you run across a novel for kids between the ages of 9-12 and at least one of the parents in the book isn’t dead, check the publication date because it probably came out last year. For the most part, the books I’ve encountered have dealt with grief. Grief and death and guilt and a smothering sense of helplessness in a cold, cruel world. What can we read into that? Well, the times in which we live aren’t exactly fodder for cheery fare, I’ll grant you. You’ve got ideologues pandering to humanity’s worst instincts, war, bloodshed, addiction, malaise, and worse and worse. I guess for a lot of authors of children’s books there’s a temptation to just sink into that feeling and draw from it. Ultimately those books find that tiny, gold, gleaming bit of hope in all that darkness. But if kids are anything like me, they’re going to get sick of that stuff pretty quickly. Here’s an idea: Why not take the idea of a world gone mad and give it a jolt of lightning to the veins? Set your book in another era when America went a little crazy, then liven things up with spies, car chases, murder attempts, gunshots, traitors, double agents, and that’s just the first few chapters! A book for the kids that want to read a response to our age that will thrill them to the core, and maybe plant a couple of seeds of rebellion in their craniums at the same time.
For Jake, life is simple. His father disappeared during WWII and the boy is fairly certain that means the man’s a P.O.W. with the Russians. Someday Jake will fly into that godless Communist country, find his father, and save him. In the meantime, it’s 1953 and the Cold War is in full swing. One day, Jake comes home to find that his mother has rented out the attic to a strange man named Shubin. A Russian man, no less. Convinced that Shubin is a Communist spy, Jake wastes no time in investigating the clear criminal. Unfortunately for him, the more Jake digs into the man’s life and dealings, the more dangerous things become for him. Is someone is tailing Jake all the time? Why is the FBI speaking to him during school hours? Is a man with gold teeth really staring through his bedroom window at night? And why, oh why did Jake steal those airplane plans out of Major Armbruster’s car? The more answers he receives the stranger things become, until Jake must face unspeakable truths about the country he loves and serves.
I was talking with a colleague the other day about what makes a children’s book memorable. Let’s say thirty years pass and you still remember the name and plot of a book written for kids. Why? What makes it stick in your brain? For me, a good children’s novel is one that isn’t afraid to get weird. Harriet the Spy? Chock full of really weird people and elements. The Westing Game? same story, only you set it in an apartment complex and you get to know the cast of characters better. And to this list I would add Spy Runner. It doesn’t start off weird, initially. When I thought it was just some safe little story about a boy coming to terms with McCarthyism I felt I’d heard this tune a couple times before. This is all The Loud Silence of Francine Green territory, right? But then I got to the scene when we first meet Jake’s new border, Shubin. Jake has come home to find his mom’s car precariously parked, one of her shoes still inside and the other one in the grass, the front door partly open and her purse on the doorstep. When he comes inside his mother is barefoot, laughing, bantering with a strange man as she angles a large trunk down the stairs with him. From that moment forward, this high tenor of weirdness imbues the text. Like Jake, you know something’s going on, but you aren’t sure what the nature of it is yet (though, as an adult reading a children’s book, you can probably guess).
Yelchin, born in Russia and who left the Soviet Union when he was twenty-seven, should not be read by new American-born children’s authors. Why? Well, if a man can live twenty-seven years in another country, then come to our own and, in the course of things, write better and more succinctly than so many of the Yanks I read in my daily work, that’s could be depressing to a debut writer. For me, there’s always one moment in a well-written book for kids that wins me over. Makes me fall in love with the book. In the case of Spy Runner it’s a different scene, a little later, between Jake, Shubin, and Jake’s mom. They’re in the living room and something is … off. Jake’s mom seems expectant. Jake is paused. Shubin isn’t doing what the mom wants or expects, and Jake has no expectations but he can feel this odd tension. It’s like watching a scene from a Eugene O’Neill production. Just the below the surface of the niceties, something strange is brewing. For Jake, and for the reader too, there’s an increasing sense that no one in his life is telling the truth and no one can be trusted. How many children’s novels, like this one, choose not to give their heroes confidants? Too few.
I’m also a sucker for a killer line. That sentence that turns all the ones before it on their heads. Listen to this: “Trudy Lamarre had beautiful red hair and eyes that made him stutter: deep, dark brown eyes. Jake despised her.” Or how about this description later of his mother. “He looked at her thin fingers, white from grasping the purse; at her small, delicate ear; at the side of her face; and at a thread of her hair the color of roasted chestnuts, shaped like a question mark hanging upside down.” Or even, quite possibly best of all, this moment when Jake accidentally discovers Shubin in his mother’s bedroom. The two of them, together, are trying to guide a moth out the window. It’s innocuous, but both Jake and the reader have the sense that they’ve just witnessed something incredibly tender pass between the two people. “He lifted his eyes to the ceiling, where their shadows swayed together as if dancing in time to the sound of the soft hollow tapping of the moth and of his heart beating hard against his rib cage and wanting to explode.”
Of course, I guess the best evidence that Yelchin’s a good writer is the fact that he’s managed to write a whole book starring a protagonist that is very difficult to like. Jake, put plainly, is an idiot. A friend of mine remarked after reading this book that if adults ever wanted to, they could make a drinking game out of every time Jake nearly meets his demise (don’t try it – you’d be passed out before you got to Chapter Seven). But what you dislike about him is, to a certain extent, his surety that everything he’s been taught about America and Communism and spies, is true. It’s only when he begins to lose his grip on this certainty that you start to like him a little more. Before that, he’s just a dolt. Still, even an idiot can be sympathetic if he’s treated unjustly, and Jake gets a bit of that. You’re also rooting for him to either confront or escape the dark forces tailing him time and again. Even if you don’t wholly like him, you want him to win in the end.
When I was in high school my French class had us read a fairly simple novel over the course of several weeks. And the plot of this novel appeared to be perfectly calibrated to bore me, specifically, into a state of catatonic malaise. It was about thwarting spies who wanted to steal plans for military planes. SNORE! The degree to which I didn’t care about French teenagers solving crimes could only be matched by the degree to which I didn’t care about jet schematics. For this reason, I am going to grant Mr. Yelchin some extra points for actually making a reader care about this sort of thing. I mentioned earlier that the book is exciting, sometimes shockingly so. Though there isn’t anything in the least bit supernatural about it, you still get this otherworldly feeling when strange, exciting things start happening. About the time Jake spits out a tooth from a fall, you’re all in.
I would be amiss if I didn’t mention Yelchin’s photography. Yelchin has mentioned that film noir has had a bit of an impact on the writing of this book, and indeed he holds a graduate film degree himself. But the photographs that grace the text don’t resemble film stills (though they rely on many of the tropes, particularly The Third Man) so much as they do photographs taken on the sly. I once saw, and very much enjoyed, a Bill Morrison film called Decasia constructed entirely from film footage that had deteriorated over time. The photographs in this book feel akin to that movie. Where Yelchin chooses to blur, to deteriorate, to stress, or to wear down is carefully considered. The end result is that even the most innocuous image, like that of a marching band coming down a street, feels vaguely nightmarish. The innocent and everyday are rendered untrustworthy through Yelchin’s gloss. But they are also, and I mean this truly, beautiful, wonderful photographs. You could hang them on a gallery wall and no one would so much as blink. When Yelchin illustrated M.T. Anderson’s The Assassination of Brangwain Spurge, it was the first time I’d encountered an unreliable visual narrator. When I look at the photographs in Spy Runner it is no longer a question of reliable and unreliable. It is literally a question of whose lens you’re looking through.
In recent years, there has been a lot of talk about how one of the many roles librarians can choose to fulfill is to act as educators to children and patrons about truth and facts. If we can teach people that not everything they read on the internet is true and comes from a reliable source, we’ll be doing a public service. At one point early in the novel Jake’s teacher mentions that you can’t believe everything you hear on the radio, a statement that shocks the boy considerably. Already, the children of the early 21st century are, like Jake, learning that they must be canny, be clever, and question everything. Complacency can be put aside when you start to get a glimpse of what you’re up against. For these kids, they’ll want a book that’s unafraid to talk about the price of truth in a world that relies on understood lies. Yelchin isn’t mapping the era of McCarthyism on our current times. He’s holding it up to the mirror of where we are now, showing us the similarities between the eras, and asking what we’re going to do about it. More of this, please, Mr. Yelchin. More of this, please.
On shelves now.
Source: Final copy sent from publisher for review.
And now, as promised, my Q&A with Eugene Yelchin:
Betsy Bird: First off, I’m crazy about this book. Just wanted to get that out and in the open from the start. And this surprised me on some level because it’s not as if this is the first middle grade novel I’ve ever read set during the McCarthy era. At the end of the book you write about how recently the U.S. has been “returning to the politics of division it had already experienced during the Cold War anti-communist crusade.” What’s so interesting is how the role of Russia has changed between the 50s and now. But there have been plenty of times in the past when American ideology has been brought to bear on the lives of our children. Why choose the Cold War specifically as your era for the story?
Eugene Yelchin: Thank you so much for reading Spy Runner, Betsy. After three years in the making, the book is gathering favorable reviews. I hope that positive opinions are due to the quality of the book, but I also know that its timely release (what with Mueller report, etc.) has something to do with it. Accordingly, I am not all that convinced that role of Russia has changed much between the 50s and now.
Apart from the troubling militaristic posture that Russia is pursuing, I am concerned that the current of influence between the US and Russia seems to be reversing. Not the American-style democracy is influencing Russia today, but the Russian-style autocracy has arrived to our shores instead. Obviously, this is not the first time the American experiment was threatened, but the affinity between Cold War’s rhetoric and our current socio-political climate is too obvious to ignore. If reading Spy Runner prompts young readers’ curiosity in what had occurred during Cold War in the United States, they will be better equipped to make some sense of what is happening in our country now.
BB: You yourself grew up in Russia and lived there until you were twenty-seven. How, then, did you research 1953 middle America?
EY: I have lived in the United States longer than I have lived in Russia, but recreating the past of either country is hard. I make it harder on myself by refusing to depict the past from the point of view of the present. In Spy Runner, I was after the text accessible to today’s kids, yet completely authentic, firmly planted in the mid-century’s state of mind. While working on the novel, I watched a great deal of educational films from the 1950s: how to recognize a communist, how to survive the atomic blast, and so forth. I read memoirs and biographies of defected Russian spies and the American intelligence operatives. I studied spy manuals and declassified CIA, FBI, and KGB documents. In so many ways, writing is like method acting. To enter the troubled mind of my protagonist I whipped myself into the state of paranoid frenzy and wrote from that unstable place.
BB: I’ve been reading a lot of middle grade novels this year that move at a glacial snail’s pace. This book takes off like a shot from chapter one onward, barely stopping to catch its breath. Were there any novels, for kids or adults, that influenced this writing? Or, for that matter, the setting and tone?
EY: American mid-century crime comics were a natural point of departure, but it was film noir — an anomaly in the history of the American cinema so profoundly nihilistic and dark those films were — that made its mark on the novel. I hold a graduate film degree from the University of Southern California in Los Angeles and have directed many TV commercials in which three-act narratives are told in 30 seconds regardless of how complex some of those narratives were. As a result, cinema with its accelerated pacing and its ability to swell to the extraordinary emotional heights within mere seconds had a profound influence on the internal rhythm of Spy Runner.
BB: I love the action but my favorite moments in the book are these still, strange, almost unreal points of quiet that crop up periodically. The imagery is so beautiful. Two people trying to cup a moth so that they can shoo it out of a window. A hot day next to a burning tire under the blinding sun. The strangest, by far, though, is when Jake is in the living room with his mother and her new border Shubin. It feels like an Edward Albee play where you’re only seeing 15% of what’s actually going on, while the rest simmers under the surface. When you write a scene like that, does it come to you with more or less ease than the moments of action and drama?
EY: Both are equally hard and are equally fun to write. The stakes are often higher in the quiet scenes than in the loud scenes. The quiet scenes deny the emotional release through physical action and therefore carry more tension. Spy Runner is written in close third-person so that we know as little as the protagonist knows. We might feel that something is going on under the surface of the text but we are not sure what it is. In other words, in the scenes between the boy, his mother, and their border the subtext is challenging the text. The customary balance is tipped, which gives these scenes such edgy and uneasy feel.
BB: Please tell me about the photography in this book. There’s absolutely no information in the final copy that mentions it, and I have so many questions. I take it you did it all yourself. Was it staged or taken of old stills and newspaper frames? They have a dot matrix effect that gives everything an old-fashioned, distressed feel. Like something out of a grimy newspaper. Why did you give them this effect? Some, like the one taken inside a car, must have been taken directly. Did you seek out classic cars and other items when shooting the scenes? And how on earth did you get that shot of the attacking dog?
The artwork for the book began in the style of 1950s spy and crime comics. I am a fairly skilled forger, so that by looking at my pictures one could assume that they were authentic period pieces. It appeared to me later that comics-style illustrations were misrepresenting gravity of the project. The narrative takes its cues from pulp fiction, but pulp fiction it is not. Since spy photography is at the heart of the book, the next logical step was to create images reminiscent of those clandestine photos. These pictures cast doubt on everything the protagonist holds as true while contributing to the vertiginous sense of a nightmare he finds himself in. The final illustrations are photo-collages composed of hundreds of separate pieces either found or photographed by me and composited digitally using some basic Photoshop effects.
BB: In your last book with M.T. Anderson (THE ASSASSINATION OF BRANGWAIN SPURGE) you had a hand in a book where, for the first time, the text was accompanied by an unreliable visual narrator. Maybe I should have asked this first, but why include the photography in this book at all? What role do you think it plays on the young reader’s experience. I know what I think, but I’d like to hear your take.
EY: Growing up in the former Soviet Union where truth was continually revised or obscured, I have spent my formative years in search of what was hidden from me, what was kept in secret. As a result, I am particularly sensitive to the notion of the post-truth politics. In Spy Runner, suspicion and mistrust clouds my protagonist’s judgment. He barrels toward the emotionally shattering discovery that hardly anyone, including his mother, is what they seem. Today, we experience shattering discoveries on a regular basis. Nothing is what it seems. A visual image became the primary tool of deception. Photo-collages, fake photographs that do not exist in reality, seemed to me a perfect medium to underscore not only the main tension in the book, but also the daily experiences of my readers.
BB: Finally, your books tend to contain some kind of visual accompaniment. Is there something you haven’t done that you’d still like to try? And, on a related note, what are you working on next?
EY: I subscribe to the notion that form is content. Therefore, I continue exploring various ways in which book’s art and design are no longer visual accompaniments but rightful storytellers. No one would argue that pictorial language contains emotional and intellectual capacity no less powerful than words. Together, words and images could create stories we have not even imagined yet. So these are the stories that I am trying to imagine in my next two projects — a memoir Watching Baryshnikov From The Wings and a graphic novel still untitled.
Thank you, Eugene, for answering my questions. And thanks too to the Henry Holt folks for setting it up.
About Betsy Bird
Betsy Bird is currently the Collection Development Manager of the Evanston Public Library system and a former Materials Specialist for New York Public Library. She has served on Newbery, written for Horn Book, and has done other lovely little things that she'd love to tell you about but that she's sure you'd find more interesting to hear of in person. Her opinions are her own and do not reflect those of EPL, SLJ, or any of the other acronyms you might be able to name. Follow her on Twitter: @fuseeight.
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