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Fade (1988): Better to Burn Out

Robert Cormier, Fade (Delacorte, 1988)
[originally posted 26Jan2000]

photo credit:

Big neon glitter.

First, the prurience issue.

Some fool– and hopefully it’s only one fool making noise– wants to yank this book off the shelves in northern Joisey. Why? Because it’s <gasp> SEXUALLY EXPLICIT. (One wonders if those same shelves have V. C. Andrews’ novels, and whether said fool has ever “flipped through” those.) A sexually explicit coming-of-age novel from the eighties. Who’d’a thunk it? And when it comes right down to it, if you really think high school kids haven’t already thought about this stuff without having read this book… well, let’s put it more simply– if you’re the parent of a high school student who HASN’T thought about all this stuff, you may want to consider getting him this one for Christmas. Sheesh.

Because, when it comes right down to it, the first half of this book reads pretty much exactly like the fantasies of many an adolescent. Which is not necessarily a bad thing, and may even be a good thing, in a novel aimed at adolescents (unless the perspective belongs to the parent of the adolescent, who seems to think that sexual thoughts need to be PUT into someone’s head, rather than just growing there on their own as a consequence of begin an adolescent. But that’s a topic of discussion for the Dr. Laura list. The rest of you, please, just take my word for it). So I’m willing to allow all the latitude necessary given that I’ve pretty much forgotten adolescence.

When I start whining about Fade, then, I’m not whining about the explicitness of it. And I’m not whining about Cormier’s writing style, for the most part; Fade is miles better than his two overrated teen “classics,” the wooden The Chocolate War and the cardboard I Am the Cheese. It really flies, in fact, and ended up being my first single-day read of the year. So what’s the whining about? The transparent strategy-changing exactly halfway through the book. One could argue that the plot, as set up at the end of the book, demands the things that happen in the middle (we suddenly have a storyline from 1938 interrupted by a storyline fifty years later, with absolutely no foreshadowing at all). This has been done a million times before, of course. The difference here is that in 99% of those cases, it’s been handled better. Also, and perhaps this is a minor point, Cormier sets up a rhythm with his headings, and then breaks it towards the end, leaving the reader somewhat confused and disoriented as to what, exactly, he’s trying to do.

The plot is about as complex as a primitive seesaw. Again, this is not a bad thing, and in fact contributes to what strengths the book has. It doesn’t need a complex plot to get its point across. The plot being that a certain family, now living in rural Massachusetts (having emigrated from Canada), has one person in every generation capable of fading—turning himself invisible. This trait passes from uncle to nephew (a never-explained oddity that ends up being a plot point), and has for at least two hundred years (it has been traced back to the mid-1700s). Paul Moreaux/Paul Roget, the book’s protagonist, is thirteen in 1938, when he finds out he’s the most recent family member to get the fade. His uncle, a drifter, comes back to town to school him in the ways of the fade. Simple, right? And in the correct hands, this tale and its obvious moral (if you spy on people, you’re going to be let down by what they do in private– well, duh) would be a killer. Has been a killer in many cases. But Cormier suddenly felt the need, halfway through his book, to add a number of subplots and complexities that made me want to rip my hair out. To keep playing devil’s advocate, after I got used to the fact that we were going to skip around in time, I almost started enjoying the book again. Paul, once grown, has to continue the chain– he searches for the nephew who’s gained the power as well, and finds that one of the clumsiest pieces of foreshadowing ever written has come true. (Believe me, that’s not a spoiler– you’ll know it the minute you read it.) And, through the jarring, ham-fisted mechanisms of the last half of the book, the most-improved-author status still shines, and I kept reading because here’s a guy who’s writing a good, fun story– the work of an inspired but truly talented member of the X-Files fan fiction newsgroup is comparable.

And then comes the last paragraph.

I’m not sure I can give this one to you without spoilers. Suffice to say that the mechanism Cormier adopts in the last paragraph has been done by Stephen King a hundred times over a hundred times better. It’s something that needs to be plotted all the way through a tale, rather than being a clumsy addition halfway through. (Two words: Springheel Jack.) If I hadn’t been on a crowded train when I closed the back cover on this one, I’d have flung it for the last paragraph, if for nothing else. And there’s enough else to warrant flinging before, even if there’s also enough else to keep one reading up to that horrid last paragraph.

So what does one do with a book like this? One tries to balance everything out and hope for the best. * 1/2


About Robert "Goat" Beveridge

Media critic (amateur, semi-pro, and for one brief shining moment in 2000 pro) since 1986. Guy behind noise/powerelectronics band XTerminal (after many small stints in jazz, rock, and metal bands). Known for being tactless but honest.

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