Twisted (by Laurie Halse Anderson)

14 07 2012

After his junior year in high school Tyler Miller goes from your average high school loser to popular guy, even potential dating material for the high school Queen Bee Bethany Milbury. Tyler has gained somewhat of a notorious reputation after the community service he had to perform because he got busted spray-painting graffiti all over the school. Another side effect of this ‘Foul Deed’ as he calls it himself is his newly gained muscled body. If his community service amounted to anything at all, it was proving that digging holes is what he’s really good at, not the AP courses his dad wants him to take. Also, having required said hot bod means  he now gets what he always wanted: he gets noticed. Not just by Bethany, but also by her brother, Chip, who feels challenged in his position of high school king.

Twisted is sometimes called a companion novel to Anderson’s almost legendary novel Speak. While Speak featured the voice of the victim, Twisted shows what happens when people get accused of things because of a certain reputation they have and despite your best efforts you don’t know how to convince them otherwise. Twisted too features a standard high school where the caste system is firmly in place, just like in Speak: the ‘popular posse’ vs the ‘loser nobodys’. When the two mix, you know the consequences will be dire. In this case, everyone’s eye is on Tyler when a dramatic incident supposedly happens to Bethany Milbury.

In Twisted Anderson experiments with a male voice, but I feel this is only successful up to a point. The story of Twisted definitely plays on two different levels: Tyler and the whole Bethany affair on the one hand and Tyler and the relationship with his father at home on the other hand.  But both plotlines are basically about the same thing: power and control. At school, Tyler now has something which he’s always wanted: he has a powerful, maybe even a bit mysterious aura, so much so that Chip, Bethany’s brother feels threatened by it. Obviously he does his utmost to continue humiliating Tyler. Bethany on the other hand sees this power as an alluring factor and does what she does best: she flirts with the hot guy. Now, as two-dimensional as she may seem, there are actual girls out there like Bethany, and the fact that Tyler wanted to do the honorable thing and rejects her just doesn’t play well with the Bethanys of this world.  In the high schools I know, though, a girl like Bethany would never be popular, she’d be the school skank, gossiped about by the girls, and even scorn by the boys for being so easy. Anyway, that’s beside the point. From a narrative point of view, I didn’t really buy the sudden ‘summer change’ in personality in Tyler. From the way his voice sounds (why graffiti the school in the first place if not to get noticed, right?), I can’t believe he was ever such a ‘loser nobody’. Also, Bethany’s brother already hated him before that summer and before Bethany started paying attention, so yet again, this is proof that Tyler wasn’t all that invisible to him.

The other plotline about Tyler and his dad is an intensification of what plays on the other level, and this plotline is definitely the stronger one, one where Tyler’s voice is most effective. Tyler shows restraint when he could abuse his power with Bethany. Tyler’s dad on the other hand feels he’s losing out at his job and wants to maintain a certain level of control and works this out on Tyler and the rest of the family. Just like Chip feels he’s losing control, just like Bethany feels a loss of power when she gets rejected, Tyler’s dad does almost anything to stay on top in his job and at his home life. Tyler consequently feels he’s worth nothing and that he sucks at life.

 

Even if Twisted is not entirely successful, it does have quite a few redeeming qualities, not in the least the exploration of the relationship between the stressed out, controlling father and the son who has different priorities, different interests than what his father has decided for him. When things get going here, it is highly explosive. In a way, Tyler has literally been working up a muscle to stand up to his father, even more so than as a way to ‘impress the girl’. The fact that his father of all people does not believe him when he says he didn’t do what he is accused of makes this a turning point in Tyler’s struggle. Twisted may not be Laurie Halse Anderson at her best, but it’s still pretty good… a story that I think a lot of boys might relate to…even if it’s only secretly so.

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