The Alan Review
Current Editors
Steven Bickmore
Jacqueline Bach
Melanie Hundley
Volume 23, Number 2
Winter 1996

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The Truth Will Not Set You Free If You Never Have a Chance To Speak, or a Contradiction in Terms

Kathleen Brooks

To me, truth is not some vague, foggy
notion. Truth is real. And, at the
same time, unreal. Fiction and fact and
everything in between, plus some things
I can't remember, all rolled into one
big "thing." This is truth to me.
--Jack Handey

At the outset of the writing of this paper, I had planned to look at the novel Nothing but the Truth by Avi as a traditional classroom teacher might look at it -- that is, with a study of plot, character, setting, theme, and so on. The more I worked with each area, though, I found the task more and more difficult as I tried to separate the reader response from the traditional presentation. I now realize that if I am to discuss this book in the classroom setting, I cannot separate but must pull from each approach. Just as the book is put together with a strange combination of facts based in emotion, the teaching of the text must combine fact and fiction, reason and emotion.

Nothing But the Truth is "a documentary novel" or so Avi labels it. But what does that mean? The text does consist of "documents contained or certified in writing"; the novel does "employ objective facts." But there the definition's similarity to Webster's idea ends, for Webster defines documentary as "factual objective representation" (emphasis is mine). Some of the facts are these: Philip Malloy hums through the National Anthem in a school system that requires students to remain silent during its playing over the PA; Philip is suspended for deliberately flouting the rule; his parents understand from Philip that he was "singing" the anthem. And thus the story rolls. The reader follows all those involved -- superintendent, board members, other teachers, the principal, the homeroom teacher, and the candidate for the board vacancy -- and must work with only the pieces of information given. The novel even includes the indignant talk-show host who encourages hate mail to be sent to the teacher who dared to punish Philip for singing.

When working with this particular novel, it is important for teachers to remember that the author has very carefully selected exactly which facts he presents, much like the selection of facts for a slanted sensational news magazine on television is careful and deliberate. The plot, then, if we can call it that, is presented as a documentary might be presented, but it is still a subjective presentation.

The reader becomes part of the author's intent to cloud the issue in layers of truth:

The way we shape our language in text (discourse) can have dramatic effects on our interpretation of that text because of a certain way of patterning the words (layout) and the use of different fonts (formatS), we can cause eye movements to be irregular; de-automatized because of the way lines terminate at different points on the page.

The discourse, layout, and format do indeed have a dramatic effect on a traditional interpretation of the novel. As the reader's eye moves down the page over the bits and pieces of evidence, the reader, too, carefully chooses the evidence in the case of Philip vs. the world. The reader, like the author, glosses over the truth, picking and choosing what to believe -- choices determined by emotion and not by reason. The choices all involve the question what is the truth in this story?

In looking for the truth, the reader gets caught in the clever play with words. To introduce the seemingly insignificant memo concerning the National Anthem, the author relies on the weight of the very powerful words of the letterhead, "Where Our Children Are Educated, Not Just Taught." (Just what the difference is between "educated" and "taught" is never explained, but the motto sounds official!) The story ends with Philip's admission that he does not "know the words" to the National Anthem he so often said he had been singing. From the beginning to the end, the author manipulates the language as well as the reader.

The memos from Dr. Seymour to Doane are another case of making the language work in the story. A study of each addition to the information of successive memo is important in relation to the power of words. The question to be answered by readers is how has each memo been changed and why? Philip's "disturbance" later becomes "deliberate in order to draw attention to himself." The hint that he is an inferior student is added in a later memo. All additions change the emphasis to portray the kind of student who dares to flout authority. Also, the school pronouncements play with the language to fit the media attention. Teachers originally are given a standard format for morning announcements and later the teachers receive an "official statement."

Perhaps, concerning truth in language, the book's philosophy is that of Dr. Seymour. As Dr. Seymour says, "It doesn't matter if it's true or not true. It's what people are saying that's important." The reader cannot prove anything Jake says on his show as false. Everything he says is the truth; Jake just uses the words to his advantage. Obviously, working with the point of view of this story becomes very complicated. Whose point of view shall the reader work with? As time passes, characters do not remember incidents accurately: characters rationalize; characters soften with words. But finally, is it indeed the language that lies or man's use of the language to convey more of a message than is outwardly said?

But what is really going on in this novel? With no authorial narrative but perhaps some journal entries from Philip, a study of the text of this documentary novel shows that it does "engage the reader in the task of working things out for himself." The reader is bombarded with evidence, and the weight of that evidence keeps changing. Is the text ultimately ambiguous? When identifying plot, the reader thinks the novel is about something when, in reality, it is about nothing. It is, as Donelson and Nilsen identifies it in Literature for Today's Young Adults, "a problem novel" that "doesn't gloss over anything." But, when all is done, the reader sees the absurdity of it all -- it is the story of a boy who cannot run track.

So, thematically, the story is one of an initiation gone awry. In the presentation of this initiation, the reader meets a bit of all the following themes: all in the family, self-identity, facing the enemy, matters of the heart, right or wrong, journeys, and what fills your life? Each of these themes is a part of Malloy's story.

And what teacher can ignore the similarity of the theme of this novel to the theme of The Crucible: how confused the truth becomes when reason gives way to emotion. The book is a social criticism but is also a psychological study of manipulators. The only question that is tough to answer is why the manipulation and which of the characters are aware of it.

In talking about character and manipulation, who is this main character Philip Malloy? How do we get to the real character through all the interpretations and reams of paperwork presented in the documentary? Does he qualify as the hero? Perhaps not. He seems rather typical on the surface, though he refuses to apologize; he blames the teacher for his problems. Does he understand what he is doing to others or is he the victim of all the adult manipulators in the story?

In the classroom, students may see him as the hero because he gets around the system. Adults may see him as the villain. But will the class recognize the other villains? There are many. Among them are his dad; for, in Philip's story, manipulation begins at home. Dad can't stand up for himself to Dexter when "It wasn't even anything [he] did." So, Dad manipulates Philip to carry out at school what he himself cannot at the work place. And the manipulation continues. The administration manipulates Miss Narwin into being "the fall guy." The journalist manipulates the news article. Jake Barlow, too, as mentioned before, never quite allows the other side to be heard.

In another traditional area of study, the story is seductive because its setting is the socio-political world that students and teachers are already familiar with. We recognize from our own unique perspective the situation so well. No matter how much we would try to look at it subjectively, a teacher-reader would respond with great sympathy toward Miss Narwin, and students would, I fear, see Philip as a hero. I think all, though, would see the documentary as tragic.

Well, if everybody's a villain, then, who's the victim? At first glance, Miss Narwin is. She is the target of Philip's misplaced anger. Instead of being angry at himself, he focuses externally on her.

A good question for classroom discussion is whether Philip completely understands the ramification of what he has done. Perhaps, as he sees it, the world punished him so he will punish the world. He can't run track, so he looks for someone to blame. He blames Miss Narwin. After all, as he sees it, he is only trying "to get Narwin to crack a smile." He thinks he's just being typical -- trying to get through it all. So, typically, he will not apologize. We come full circle -- Phil, the villain; Narwin, the victim. Philip's motivation is just a little stronger: he has been denied the one thing he enjoys in school -- it's his dream to go to the Olympics.

Does Philip know the truth? After much deliberation, I'm inclined to think he does. Philip begins the deception to protect himself just as any kid would. It grows. Philip doesn't put it all together until the very end. Hence, the tears.

He is a winner, though, because he comes into consciousness. There are just different levels of winning. Winning here is a state of mind -- just as the story is a presentation of perspective so here is winning. Philip moves one small step. Ted wins the election. Jake wins in that he throws his weight around; he's making money. He may be involved in low-level reptilian winning, which is merely cold-blooded and instinctual reaction, but it is indeed still winning. Miss Narwin may be a winner because she's no longer part of a system that plays to the crowd. Philip searches for the truth, and he finds a little truth about himself.

In deeper reflection, though, all of the characters are victims of someone else and victims of a society that twists and distorts. They each cover their own inadequacies by pointing a finger at someone else. Is it any wonder that Philip may not recognize what he is doing to others? He's lashing out as he has seen others do. And Philip is a victim of himself. To go anywhere with his initiation, he must be wounded. And he will be when he's transferred after being denied a chance to make up any work, transferred to a school where there is no track team. This initiation is best explained by Purves, Rogers, and Soter, who write in How Porcupines Make Love II, "One of the harder lessons an emerging adult faces is isolation from peers. The isolation may beÉa consequence of making a moral or ethical choice at a significant price." The student reader here has a chance to look at how he/she might work in the same situation.

As with the other elements of fiction, it is difficult as well to identify in this novel the protagonist and antagonist. As I would hope to teach it, society is the antagonist in an Emile-Zola-type world, where man makes his slow slide into the uncivilized. The questions arise: Why did no one stop the swirl? How does man allow this misuse of energy to happen?

Who knew the "truth" is not a question that can be answered either. Each character had his or her perception of the truth. Coach Jamison comes closest to understanding. He sums up Miss Narwin's denial of make-up work when he says, "Well, look, you did one hell of a number on herÉ" but he encourages yet further distortion when he suggests, "by next year this'll all be over."

As in real life, sometimes the manipulators are winners as with the winning board member. But, sometimes, like Philip, they just go through the hoops again. In this case, at the end of the story, the readers are left right where they started, and the whole thing could happen again because no one has really learned anything. We've watched a stunted initiation with only a glimmer of awareness. How would the Buddhists who believe that people are reincarnated over and over again as they work their way up gradually from a vegetable to a pure spirit look at this development? Will Philip, too, slip backwards for bad behavior?

After having attempted to respond traditionally in the classroom, I'd move into some discussion questions like: Does the book say something new? A book like this one can be read on so many levels of response. On the psychological level, one must look at the subconscious process going on here.

There's a point, though, where the traditional response breaks down. Avi has "more gadgets to play with" than did past writers. Our response to a book depends on perspective, and this whole book is about perspective. As a teacher would traditionally discuss each item of plot, character, and so on, student response would quickly interlace. This is not a book that can be broken down, hard and rigid. As a teacher I would be inclined to look at the disparate parts of the work only to see how they fit together as a completed totality.

I believe that the best way to teach this book is just to ask the three relatively simple questions:

* What stands out in the book?

* What does the author seem to be about?

* What's overwhelming about the book?

At that point experience will come to play all by itself and discussion will be plenty in the classroom.

In this story of so many perspectives, isn't it ironic that at one point Philip complains, "I wish people would say what they mean." Textually, I would find it difficult to test the students traditionally on this novel. It is a tough one to teach traditionally as well. The reader response can barely be separated from any other response to the novel or we lose the overall effect. It would be fun in a class, however, to put together a piece of our own day from bits and pieces that others would see and hear and read about.

Kathleen Brooks teaches English at Kenton Senior High School in Kenton, Ohio.

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