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Book cover art by Rich Deas.
Review © 2008 by Thomas M. Wagner.

[This review contains mild spoilers.]

Every generation breeds its own paranoia. I was a teen in the Reagan era, and it can be difficult to communicate to people who are 20-somethings twenty years on that in those days, one really did live with the lingering fear that one fine day the missiles might fly. These days, global terrorism still manages to feel like a series of odd, isolated occurrences, and even when they strike catastrophically on our own shores, we see them as aberrations of the norm. It's a far cry from the omnipresent, existential tension experienced from thinking that the whole world could really come to a fiery, nuclear end in just an hour's time simply through the pressing of a handful of big red buttons. Everybody thinks Prince's "1999" is just some wildass party song. But pay close attention to the lyrics, and they communicate what was — in the 80's, if not 1999 itself — a genuine anxiety.

One of the themes of S. A. Bodeen's debut young adult thriller The Compound is the question of where to direct our paranoia now. Should we fear be as fearful of those who "hate our freedoms" as much as our leaders say? Or are our leaders themselves the ones whose motivations and actions we should be skeptical of? It's about as blunt a post-9/11, Bush-era message as you could promote.

But Bodeen never runs with it like she should. Instead, what had the potential to be a truly suspenseful dramatic interpretation of the fears of the present day — post 9/11, post Iraq, and seeped in the apprehensions of a culture on the brink of economic crisis — is reduced to the level of a tawdry collection of Hollywood-level "high-concept" contrivances. Bodeen, whose previous work has been picture books for very small children, never met a cliché she didn't like. And she puts every one of them through their paces in a book that really could have been the stuff of classic YA talespinning. Seriously, by the time you've fallen back on the old "we have to get out of here before the bomb goes off" stunt, your plotting has just Darwinized itself from "banal" to "flat-out desperate." Those inclined to defend the work on the grounds that, hey, it's young adult fiction, and there's nothing wrong with those books simply re-roasting old chestnuts, I'll respond that the best YA work doesn't do that at all. Re-read Susan Cooper if you don't believe me.

The hook is this: Rex Yanakakis is a Gatesian IT gazillionaire whose horror at the prospect of a devastating WMD attack on the United States has led him to design and construct a secret survival shelter somewhere deep in the forested Washington wilderness. (We are told he even blindfolded his construction crews so they wouldn't know the location.) Being an eccentric tycoon, Yanakakis's "compound" is no mere hole in the ground with a chemical toilet and stockpiles of canned peas. It's a sprawling, multi-level subterranean complex more luxurious than most hotels, with offices, a theater, a fully equipped gym, a library with hardcopies of practically every book known to man, a salon, and a huge laboratory setup for the patriarch himself. They even keep livestock down there so Yanakakis's family can have fresh eggs and milk. Everything is designed for a full fifteen years' survival.

One terrible day, the worst happens, and Yanakakis frantically spirits his family underground. In the rush, he doesn't get everyone. The thick doors slam shut, not to be opened again for a decade and a half.

For its first half or so, The Compound is truly promising. We see the story — which opens six years after the family's entombment — unfold through the eyes of Eli, the eldest son, who has largely withdrawn into bitterness due to the fact his beloved twin brother was left outside. For the most part, the entire family — Eli, his parents, his two sisters — interacts little. The sense of ennui communicated here comes close to matching the levels of irony in George Romero's original Dawn of the Dead film, with its characters falling into routines of sheer boredom while locked in the shopping mall, a "prison" that offers everything our consumerist culture makes us want. One night Eli steals into the bedroom originally meant for his brother Eddy, and takes the pristine laptop he finds there. To his shock, he gets a live wifi signal — and the first seeds of doubt about the state of the outside world, and what his father has been telling them, are sown.

Sadly, things go off the rails for the story pretty quickly. Little logic problems abound. If papa Rex had been so careful to ensure none of the computers his family had access to in the compound were wireless equipped, how could he have been so careless as to forget the one in Eddy's bedroom? And then there is the dark secret lurking within the room with the yellow door. This involves a backup plan for feeding the family in the event the food stores run out or go bad (which is happening), and it presents a moral dilemma so excessive and outrageous that it just escapes all possible reality. I can see how some drooling megalomaniac would come up with something as patently lunatic as the concept of the "supplements." But for the rest of Yanakakis's family to be grudgingly going along with it (his wife especially, whose participation in the plan is key) all these years, only to decide it's simply beyond the pale later on when it looks like Dad's been lying about other stuff, quite frankly constitutes an abuse of the suspension of disbelief. (For one thing, accepting it requires another blow to the story's internal logic: the plan would actually exacerbate food problems far more than it solves any. And once we learn why the livestock didn't survive, the plan makes even less sense.)

What Bodeen is trying to do here is introduce the question of "how far would you go to survive?" A worthwhile literary goal, most graphically explored in the Saw films. And like those films, Bodeen mostly utilizes it for its shock value.

By this point, The Compound is simply a lost cause, its story descending into a rote succession of angry confrontations, chase scenes, and Dad popping up at the worst possible moment to thwart Eli's escape attempts like any horror movie boogeyman. Some bits are pure contrivance that transform what ought to be good narrative suspense into something closer to video game structure. In order to find out the code to activate the lock on the main door, Eli has to follow obscure clues in something of a scavenger hunt around the compound. That I figured out where the answer was hiding several chapters before Eli made the whole affair rather a silly exercise. Disreputable and exploitive rather than illuminating, even teen readers will quickly lose respect for this novel's dishonest shocks and formulaic button-mashing.