Killing Me Slowly

A leopardess who learned how to dance. And read.
Bumped - Megan McCafferty You know, when you crack open a new dystopian novel, you generally expect a somber, dramatic tone, and a story involving an epic struggle - to survive, or escape, or even overthrow the establishment. You expect a book filled with wastelands and oppression and suffering, because it is, after all, dystopian, and this is a genre characterized by human misery. So when I heard that Bumped was "dystopian", this is what I was expecting. It is so not what I got.

I'm not even sure we can categorize Bumped as dystopian, at least not wholly; it's waaay too perky like that. This book hits you like a sunny southern cheerleader on a sugar rush, smiling and laughing and enjoying life while you're wondering what happened to the cynical rebel kid that was supposed to meet you here. But that makes sense, because what I didn't realize until halfway through Bumped was that I'd been missing half its genre description: satire.

Now, okay, Bumped isn't exactly the subtle, cutting, subversively insightful satire you tend to expect, but rather the broad, cartoonish-yet-still-relevant kind. Bumped's sex-saturated, pro-teen-pregnancy world is exaggerated to an absurd, comical degree, but still manages to ring unexpectedly true.

As the summary explains, Bumped takes place in a world in which people over the age of eighteen become infertile due to some virus (not sure how that works, I mean, how can viruses be age-triggered?), so to avoid mass extinction, society, government, and the consumer market have decided that teenagers must bear the responsibility for keeping the nation's birthrates up.

From the moment they go through puberty, children and teenagers are encouraged by the media, corporations, government, and their peers, to become pregnant. We frequently hear characters singing along to popular songs about how wonderful it is to be pregnant, not to mention jingles celebrating "fetiliciousness", and characters are constantly assaulted by ads for everything from fake bellies that make the wearers feel pregnant to Tocin, a super-aphrodisiac. Condoms are illegal, and girls who are not/haven't been pregnant by the age of seventeen are looked down upon, as "virgins on the verge" of infertility. It's noticeably absent, but I can only imagine how taboo teenage homosexuality must be.

The problem here is that the teenagers have no real sense of choice in the matter. Children are expected of them, but they are not allowed to keep them; pregnant mothers are given doses of "anti-Tocin" so that they don't connect with the child while pregnant, and are not allowed to see the infants afterward. And again, condoms are outlawed, so "making love" or having sex simply for the fun of it is "wrong" for teenagers still in their "breeding" years.

On the opposite side of the spectrum lie the Church folk, who believe that having children outside of wedlock, or for money (the way the teenagers in this society do) is wrong. They believe that women and mens' bodies belong only to their husband or wife, and that the act of having sex is not for fun, but to procreate. As such, they marry off their children at a young age - starting at thirteen - regardless of the child's feelings on the matter.

Both sides are wrong - obviously - in opposing but essentially similar ways. They both limit the control and restrict the choices these teenagers have over their own reproductive organs and bodies: one by demonizing the act, the other by commercializing it.

As far as McCafferty takes the ways in which culture manipulates these teenagers, the concept is not unbelievable. The religious attitude described in Bumped is pretty much identical to religious attitudes nowadays, and while we haven't gone so far as to actively glorify the actual teenage pregnancy experience, I don't have a doubt that our culture could easily shift that way if it became necessary. It's scarily possible, especially when you think about the way baby dolls came into fashion.

To quote an article featuring information from Peggy Orenstein's Cinderella Ate my Daughter, which we reviewed a few months ago: "Concerned about declining birth rates among white Anglo-Saxon women, [Theodore Roosevelt] started a campaign against "race suicide," encouraging white middle-class women to have more than one child. Orenstein writes, "Baby dolls were seen as a way to revive the flagging maternal instinct of white girls, to remind them of their patriotic duty to conceive; within a few years dolls were ubiquitous, synonymous with girlhood itself."

So yeah, not only is the future described in Bumped totally plausible, but it's pretty much already happened. Nice.

Unfortunately, Bumped's interesting satirical take is damped somewhat by its unabashed joy in being shallow. This is undoubtedly the source of its greatest flaws as a book, because while McCafferty goes all out to demonstrate the absurdities of both a society such as this and its inhabitants, Bumped doesn't go far enough in creating a story or characters that can stand outside their satirical context.

The biggest - and most obvious - problem I think everyone will have with Bumped is the way we're just dropped in to the story, amid a deluge of "futuristic" terminology, and worse, futuristic teenage slang...

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