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Elliot Allagash by Simon Rich

August 22, 2012 15 comments

Elliot Allagash by Simon Rich 2010

The other day, I got on the train, happily anticipating 3.5 hours of journey in an Espace Calme carriage to finish Distant Star and start The Age of Innocence. Well I had my head in the stars and was far too innocent to imagine that paying an excess fare would guarantee silence. Behind me, a couple with a baby who had hardly been there for five minutes before changing wet diapers and feeding him. Ahead of me: four guys well decided to voice loudly their opinion about the comparative merits of Iphones and Android phones. On the side, a girl who visibly couldn’t understand the picture of a cell-phone going to sleep although stickers were plastered in the whole carriage. I sighed, put the Bolaño aside and blessed the kindle for not letting me short of reading alternatives. This how I decided to read Elliot Allagash that I’d previously downloaded after reading Litlove’s charming review.

Elliot Allagash probably fits into the YA category as it is about teenagers in a high school, which brings the images of insipid teen movies. But it’s more than that.

Seymour is an only child living with two nice and caring parents. They play Monopoly together every week, always have their evening meals together and the parents are a happy couple. So no family problem in sight for Seymour. He’s a freshman at Glendale’s Academy, New York. It sounds furiously funny for a French as glander means to loaf about, so this school sounds like a joke in itself. Chubby, clumsy and not-very-smart Seymour is bullied by other students. He sits alone at lunch and doesn’t have any friends, until Elliot Allagash joins Glendale Academy after his father settles in NY. And that’s where the book turns away from the mawkish-silly path of teenage book to dark fun. Because Elliot is rich, bored and blasé, he decides to give Seymour everything he wants provided that Seymour gives him his freedom of mind and obeys him in any way. And what does Seymour want? The whole package of the American high school boy: popularity, a membership in the basketball team, the hottest girl in the school and excellent grades without being a nerd. All in that order. He’s ready to give his freedom against it and Elliot is willing to have fun changing his beast into to a beau.

Elliot takes Seymour as a scientific experiment and implements all kind of schemes to achieve his goals. Elliot is rich and can afford any kind of twisted means to con people and make of Seymour the person he wants to be. Simon Rich avoids the pitfall of political correctness and goes against American mythology. Seymour isn’t going to turn into a beautiful swan thanks to hard work, prayers and honesty. Elliot buys everything he needs, conjures up good feelings and gives the adults what they want to see. He cheats on tests – easily done when they’re MCQ and not essays, creates fake charities and advertises for them posing Seymour as a disinterested benefactor. The biggest the lie, the better it works. He manipulates other people’s pride and presses all the right buttons to mold Seymour into what America expects from a model student.

Elliot has his own issues, his father Terry is like him and there’s a sort of competition between the two. Terry takes pleasure in exposing to Seymour his best stunts. Elliot lives in a fantasy house and Seymour lives in a vernacular house in comparison. The atmosphere of the book is that of comics like Superman where the shy guy becomes a superhero thanks to magic. At the same time it’s a ferocious criticism of high schools, adults’ expectations and criteria used by universities to select students.

I know it won’t suit everyone but I still found it funny and entertaining. And it leaves me with the same question about American high schools: is it really like that? I mean the dumb dances where you need a date, the cheerleading squads and the guarded territories at lunch? It seems more like a long social event than a place to actually learn something. But I’m sure that students get more from it than what we see from this side of the Atlantic.

PS: The first cover is the American edition and it suits the atmosphere of the book. The second one is the UK edition and Simon Rich should complain about it, his book seems silly.

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