In a book as disconnected and mundane as Criss Cross, clues to its meaning must be found where they lie. So when we learn what's in the science fiction novel that Debbie's reading on pages 29-30 and that there are no apples on the perfect planet described in that (presumably) made-up novel, we're left to make of that fact what we will. Given what precedes and follows this little incident, it seems clear that the alien world is perfect because any idea of sin is completely absent; everything on the planet can be eaten, and there are no apples.
Lynne Rae Perkins's novel may well be the first postmodern Newbery Medal winner. It certainly is postmodern, whether or not it's the first: Perkins uses everything from traditional prose to haiku to interview-style dialogue to further her......what? Criss Cross isn't really a story, it's more a collection of anecdotes about some teenagers in a Midwestern-ish town called Seldem somewhere in the 1960s or 70s. If that all sounds a bit vague, that seems to be Perkins's point—there are no hard lines, no real boundaries, nothing tangible to be taken hold of in this big, beautiful, sad, boring, delicious, world.
Or some such Hippie-qua-"This is the 21st century" nonsense. Before the novel even starts, there's an illustration of a graph called "the spectrum of connectedness" which goes from 0% to 100%. We're told "No one is here—no one." at both ends of the spectrum, and under the middle of the graph we find the legend, "People move back and forth in this area like molecules in steam," from which we gather that no one is completely disconnected and no one is completely connected, but that everyone moves about in the intervening territory at random.
Which is what the whole book is about, people moving around at random and coming into proximity of one another. The main character (if one can even call her that), Debbie, loses a necklace that gets passed around from person to person. Is it a metaphor? If it is, we're given no indication of its intended meaning. It seems more likely that it's simply a ruse, an analogy perhaps of the disconnectedness and random nature of things, but nothing more. Which is also likely the meaning of Perkins's admittedly poetic but random writing style, the helter skelter illustrations, the permeating sense of impending and already present ennui of each character, the suburbanite emo angst of the teenagers, etc.
If you're looking for a traditional novel about growing up, this isn't it. It's experimental, but not in the good way that jazz is experimental; Criss Cross is more like a tone-deaf trombonist trying to play Holst's The Planets by ear. The writing is well-done in the sense that Perkins knows how to make pleasant sentences, but that's about it. What happens? Nothing. If the kids learn anything, it's that they can know nothing with certainty outside themselves, that only their own rules apply, and that the meaning of things is something they invent and nothing more. An occasionally pretty, but ultimately very sad book to be digested with great care.
NOTE: For all its faults, Criss Cross is surprisingly clean. This isn't a Judy Blume novel, it's destructive elements are much more subtle than that. You will find the Lord's name used in vain more than once, but by and large this is a very tame sort of book. Still, caution is required as philosophies are far more dangerous and subversive than vices and villainies.
Review by C. Hollis Crossman
C. Hollis Crossman used to be a child. Now he's a husband and father who loves church, good food, and weird stuff. He might be a mythical creature, but he's definitely not a centaur. Read more of his reviews here
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