March 19, 2016
Unteachable- Shadowcon Mini-Views
Elliot Wake (Leah Raeder) is in fact my favorite author of all time, and I say that knowing how much weight that label carries for some, certainly for me. I've had an interesting experience with his work, moving through his world backwards as I began with Cam Girl and then worked back to Unteachable, and so admittedly I started with dessert and am now ending with what might be the pre-meal yummy sweet milkshake, yet still I've remained engaged and very impressed with the work he's put out.
Indeed, reading Unteachable last gave me a thrill if only because I got to see the genesis of many of the ideas, characters, themes, and tone found in Cam Girl and especially Black Iris. Wake's lyrical style is here, and his social/thematic commentary bold, but not quite let off the leash yet, which is understandable. As I've said of other debut books (Beyond the Red, for example), this isn't the book that you got to soar with; it's the book you can prove can swim before doing an amazing swan dive in your next book. And being that Black Iris was one of the most intense swan dives ever, I found Unteachable oddly endearing in its restrained exploration of its subject matter because I knew that Wake would soon just launch off the page. Appropriately enough, reading this felt very much like being at the beginning of a roller coaster ride that I'd absolutely loved: it's the buildup before the big drop that I knew was amazing.
Having said that, taking this book on its own, it's good, but very conventional. Which again, is fine; it's a debut, and in terms of lyricism and imagery, Wake's style is bold and presented proudly, so it definitely proved that the author has a voice worth reading (doubly impressive when I found out that this thing was self-published at first!). It is a romance first and foremost, but while the box-tilt does happen here (in pretty great ways, actually), it all feels very confined and at the service of the genre in which it is firmly grounded, instead of, say, Cam Girl which felt like it was running along a parallel but an aesthetically completely different track to the New Adult/Romance genre. This is clearly New Adult, and it seems resistant to be so but not quite powerful enough to break free of the genre's restraints. Much like the main character Maise, the book takes on the daunting task of needing to conform to a genre while also realizing and actualizing its potential, a potential that it knows to be far in excess of the genre that it's in. Unlike Maise, Unteachable isn't quite able to slip out of its confines.
The plot of this involves Maise, a high-school senior becoming involved with her professor, Evan Wilke, while also struggling against her crumbled at-home situation and needing to get into college. The tryst is naturally attractive, and while the two try to keep their hands off each other, secrets begin to slip out, culminating in a very weird climax that definitely shows that the pieces have moved along a winding road throughout the book. There is some charm in Maise being the least fucked-up protagonist whom Wake's invented... which is saying something considering Maise's own background and history, and it was nice to see Hiyam again (my heart skipped a beat when I read her name in here for the first time; I actually went back to double-check that she was the same one as in Iris). Evan Wilke is a serviceable romantic interest though nowhere near as powerful Blythe and not holding a candle to Ellis (or Blue), and once again Wake demonstrates how the hell to portray a suitably messed up mother-daughter relationship, again planting the seeds for the theme to grow in Iris. I liked Wesley a lot, actually, finding his chemistry with Maise more interesting than Maise's own with Wilke. The school project plot is fun to read about as it introduces a great conflict for all players involved, but setting that alongside the mob plot that showed up was a weird aesthetic and structural choice. I will say I did like how many potential climaxes for the book (Wesley's film project, Hiyam's extortion, and even the breakup) served to keep me engaged and pulled off some nice twists throughout the work that kept everything relatively fresh.
Being New Adult (and Romance), this thing's got lots and lots of sex, makeout sessions, and plenty of sensual details within its contents. I don't know if its just poor ol' asexual me, but this got boring very quickly. However (!) I will say that this proved Wake a writer who is constantly improving, as I realized that this trilogy (soon-to-be-quadrilogy - November cannot come soon enough, dammit!), if viewed in release order, demonstrates how Wake hones his skill at working the sex scenes into a more character-based system: Unteachable lathers itself in excess sensual and sexual vignettes; Iris tempers that a bit more with great character chemistry outside of that; and finally Cam Girl makes its sexual scenes specifically about its characters and what these actions are doing to their psyches and in relation to their situations. Unteachable arguably tries to do something similar to Girl actually, as it raises the question of whether Maise's and Evan's entire relationship is based on sex and physical attraction, but I never got the sense that the answer that the book wants us to arrive at ("no") was justified. To clarify, Iris had very physical and sexual energy from the beginning too, but that was almost always tempered with chemistry between Laney, Blythe, and Armin that existed outside of their physical attraction to one another, something Unteachable lacked for me. I recognize that this is part of the point of the book, that the situation that Maise and Evan find themselves in is itself attractive and alluring and so their physical attraction is an obvious way to exploit that, but their love never moved beyond the immediate for me even when the book seemed to suggest at the tail end that it had. This is definitely more of a me problem than one inherently wrong with this book; this is an insta-romance, after all, which is perfectly fine, but Wake is usually more subtle and nuanced than this, again a truth that is hindered by this being a debut and constantly veering on the more reliable side of the genre.
So yeah, I'm obviously really mixed about this book. I did like it, but I think I liked it more so because of how it demonstrated the growth of its author than it as a work of fiction. As I said in my Beyond the Red review, I'd much rather be honest about what I think of a book by an author I love rather than what that author would want me to say as that's treating everyone like the intelligent and thoughtful people we know each other to be. And I can't say I was as enthralled by this as by his other material. There're some great nuggets of ideas in here, but the full potential of those ideas is better realized in Wake's later books. Read this for the full Elliot Wake experience, certainly, and if you're more of a fan of typical Romance and especially New Adult than I am, you'll probably love this! For me, however, I can only say I think it's a great representation of the potential for New Adult lit, but only an average demonstration of Wake's writing abilities.