I read a handful of William Sleator’s YA novels when I was a kid and they left a mark, so when we bought a few for our son this year, I decided to re-read one of two myself. HOUSE OF STAIRS is such a potent little book, like LORD OF THE FLIES with mixed gender teens and, instead of an island, a vast prison of stairs that’s been devised (no real spoiler here) by an unseen, controlling power.
The characters are types ranging from the cocky handsome boy to the greedy rich girl, but there’s surprising depth and insight, and Sleator twists the group into fascinating tensions and disputes as they do whatever they can to earn the only prize available: bit of food released by a small, blinking machine. As a child, I completely missed that one of the characters was secretly gay (it’s obvious now), and his psychological evolution is moving and effective, especially given how short the book is.
The group’s shifting dynamic is the real main character, though, and it’s great stuff. A final chapter reveals What It All Meant, which is fine because it’s a book aimed at teens who might not yet have studied the psychological principles at play, and because the explanation isn’t needlessly dumbed down. I’m eager to see what our son takes away from it.
If a fortyish man ever asks you, “Were you a Nirvana fan or a Pearl Jam fan?”, you’re talking to a Nirvana fan. Pearl Jam fans never ask this question. Much was made of this early grunge rivalry, which was almost entirely manufactured by posers who pretended they had more cred than other posers. Cobain briefly expressed disdain for Eddie and Co.’s anthemic style, then retracted that disdain, had a nice talk with Eddie on the phone, and said he liked him. What remained was a lot of Nirvana fans who swallowed a media-conjured debate and pretended their favorite Top 40, MTV-darling, Rolling Stone-cover band was, you know, like, realer. But they’re both seminal bands with lots of great tunes, and it’s worth remembering that Pearl Jam (a) jumped off the MTV-video machine with their second album, and (b) gleefully released a genuinely weird and subcultural third LP that cost them legions of casual fans.
Is In Utero better than Vs.? Was Nirvana’s Unplugged more electrifying than Pearl Jam’s Unplugged? I’ll leave those debates to guys who are still trying to prove their Pixies/Westerberg/Sex Pistols taste is cooler than other guys’ Neil Young/Kiss/arena-rock taste.
Vs. is a gangbuster album. There’s so much tension and propulsion in “Go”, “Animal”, and “Rearviewmirror,” and so much heartfelt, oddball pop-hookery in “Daughter” and “Elderly Woman Behind the Counter in a Small Town”, it’s hard to believe the album came from a band who was, at the time, badly dazed by the music world’s ludicrously high expectations. Vs. holds up.