I’ll go gaga over Gauguin. I’ll mash you for Modigliani. I’ll even tackle you for Titian. But too much “art is salvation” rhetoric, and I get worn out. Talking about art is like talking about yourself: the one doing it is the only one who enjoys it.
In The Plain Janes, Cecil Castellucci and Jim Rugg tackle the topic of freedom of expression in a time of terrorist-inspired anxiety. Four valiant girls stage anonymous, public art exhibits to break a suburban community of their fear. Too bad freedom of expression is apparently limited to placing little green army men on park benches.
There’s a lot to like in The Plain Janes.. Lovely draughtsmanship, a multi-layered story, and protagonists who are likeable despite being stock characters. There’s also a lot to dislike.
As the story goes, main Jane organizes a posse, christens them P.L.A.I.N. (People Loving Art In Neighborhoods) and stages guerilla art exhibits which terrify the two-dimensional adults of her suburban abode. Soap bubbles in the town fountain. Stocking caps on fire hydrants. Makeshift pyramids built on the future sites of mini-malls. Installation stunts like this may (or may not) be novel to the intended audience, but to anyone who knows America’s current art scene, they’re tired and rehashed. It’s insulting to parade them as fresh.
Main Jane at work on the first exhibit.
You know…I hate to say it, but a stunt where everyone leaves their houses to dance outside, in unison, doesn’t inspire me. It doesn’t thrill me. It just makes me want to lock the door so they can’t get back in.
Jane (main Jane, as opposed to co-stars Brain Jayne, Drama Jane, or Jock Jane) is self-absorbed as only a fifteen year old can be. She complains, doubts that suburbanites possess souls, and generally acts cliché. She does show ambition in staging her “art attacks”— but many of these savor of self-righteousness. Jane’s only true character development, when she uses art attacks to encourage Christmastime charity, comes too late in the novel. It’s too bad Castellucci didn’t include more of this in the book.
Castellucci’s story would have been better if she’d toned down the “OMG ART TOTALLY RULES” rhetoric. Sure, main Jane doubts if art truly does save (once), but such heartfelt questions seem like posturing next to the emphasis on P.L.A.I.N.’s exhibits. Syrupy rhetoric isn’t Castellucci’s only problem, though.
Jean Dubuffet only wished he could paint this scary.
The adult characters of The Plain Janes are cyphers. It could be argued that Castellucci and Rugg are dabbling in expressionism, trying to capture what an angry adult looks like to a teen. That said, it’s still an easy dodge that cheats the reader. Jane’s mother is a worry-wart, and police Chief Sanchez is a drooling fascist. All he lacks is a handlebar moustache and railroad tracks to tie children to. It’s telling that Castellucci’s only sympathetic adult character (John Doe) is a comatose attack victim, as if the only thing that separates kids from adults is a sense of victimhood. Writing weak adult characters patronizes the audience. If Ms. Castellucci really values a young girl’s ability to think for herself, why not give her readers realistic villains?
Finally, consider this: does America need another sermon about how post- 9/11 cautiousness stifles creativity? Let me pitch a dissenting opinion: we aren’t that bad off, people. I know it’s fun to imagine America as Airstrip One, but we aren’t that hampered. If we were, it would be difficult for trite, broad readings of the First Amendment to issue forth from Hollywood. It’s not. They’re everywhere. Novelist offering tidy morals like Aesopian critters doesn’t solve things. It just adds another lowing caterwaul to our sad cultural cacophony.
Worth the money? Storywise, no. But the art is stunning, so find a used copy on Amazon. If you really want a story about creativity’s battle with authoritarianism, listen to Dmitri Shostakovich’s fifth symphony. Or read a book on him. Heck, google the guy. You won’t be disappointed by that true-life tale of heroic rebellion.