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Malcolm and Juliet, Bernard Beckett

August 18, 2013

Malcolm and Juliet Book blurb

Malcolm and Juliet“’Sex was a latecomer to the party of Malcolm’s life, and when it did arrive, it didn’t come dressed in any of the usual guises…’

Malcolm is sixteen. With the mind of a scientist, the body of a teenager, and an ambition to reconcile the two, he embarks upon his latest research project – sex. Join Malcolm in his journey, as he meets the cast of characters who will take him a little closer to the centre of life’s mystery.

Will Charlotte find true love? Will Kevin get his man? How did Juliet lose her virginity and will the school principal succeed in having Malcolm;s project banned? Malcolm is just the man to find out.

Malcolm and Juliet – a comedy by Bernard Beckett.

Hilarious, with a marvellous sting in the tail.

Ref: Bernard Beckett (2004) Malcolm and Juliet. Longacre Press: Dunedin

Malcolm and Juliet First Page

Sex and Science
Malcolm leaned forward, his feet gripping the side of the bath while his left hand held the towel rail. He kept his weight close to the wall to minimise the forces: simple physics. It wasn’t the most comfortable position in the world and he realised the image it gave was somewhat distorted, but it was the only way of viewing his entire body in the small bathroom mirror above the basin.
Malcolm looked closely, trying to see the positives. His face, when he dipped down to fit it in the frame, was reasonably zit-free. His hair, although longer than the prickly fashion, had a certain style, especially when it was wet. There was no fat on his startlingly white body, and precious little hair, just a tuft under each arm and a goodly sprouting of pubes which he could see no good reason for; something to do with suction he supposed. Malcolm eyed his genitals. They looked slightly uncomfortable with the angle of his body but otherwise, as far as he could tell, quite normal. His body wasn’t muscular he had to admit, but a particularly generous person might call it wiry. There were definite lines in his legs, when he crouched. Malcolm was a runner, second place in the regional cross-country championships last year. He would have been first if the Science Fair hadn’t interfered with his training.”

Ref: p.7 Bernard Beckett (2004) Malcolm and Juliet. Longacre Press: Dunedin

NB Text Publishing offer a sneak preview of this book: http://textpublishing.com.au/books-and-authors/book/malcolm-and-juliet/

Themes in the novel

ADOLESCENCE; SEXUALITY; FRIENDSHIP; SOCIAL NETWORKS; APPEARANCES; REPRESENTATION; SCIENCE IN LITERATURE;

Possible directions for study/questions to apply to Malcolm and Juliet

4This novel offers a couple of discussion points that I find interesting…

The visual image / appearance

  • And most of these points are in evidence on the first page. The story begins with Malcolm straining to look at (the image of) his naked body in a mirror. It thereby begins with the sexuality, self-assessment and honesty that are central to this novel. More importantly, though, this first page presents us with perhaps the strongest theme in the novel – representation and the interpretation of visual – in this case, one that Malcolm recognises to be “somewhat distorted.”
  • This notion of mis-representation is picked up overleaf, when Malcolm finds a perch behind some scaffolding to film the rugby game. (He inadvertently ends up watching porn instead). The “scaffolding which painters had erected alongside the school hall (a computer enhanced photo of the building had appeared on the cover of the school prospectus and it looked so good they were now touching up the real thing.)” (p.9) In this way, the reader’s attention is drawn to the influence of visual representation.
  • Our attention is also drawn to the design element of visual representation at the end of the chapter titled, Video: Malcolm makes an ethical decision not to have any second takes (p.20). However, his Mum listens in on his very first effort at filming then tells him nonchalantly, ‘You might need to record that again by the way, I think I might have been in-shot in the mirror. Sorry. See you later then. You going out?’ (p.22)
  • Throughout the novel, Malcolm’s filming draws our attention to how visual representation might distort the original experience. There are numerous other examples of ‘appearances being interpreted’ throughout the novel; Brian’s concern with his reputation (e.g., p.25); the reason Malcolm came second in last year’s Science Fair (because it was “Brilliantly researched, […] but weak on visual punch” (p.19)); when Juliet “[pictures] her blackmailer in her head, to help focus her anger. He (well it was always men wasn’t it?) was an outcast, she’d decided.” (p.30); or when Juliet watches and waits for her Blackmailer, and is watched in turn (pp.32-33); Charlotte’s obsession with romantic movies and the way in which it influences her identity and thinking (“years of obsessive movie watching had gifted her a certain jaded cynicism and a certain hopeless romanticism too. In the movies this was no contradiction.” (p.36) (NB also, p.81), not to mention the story of her first sexual experience (NB p.38); Mr Ramsay and Ms Charters having sex on the photocopier machine – and how Kevin describes it (pp.62-63), etc..
  • The importance of appearance fits the theme of sexuality and sexual attraction, but it also fits the theme of science (survival of the fittest and all that)

Science and Life

Science is often a source of humour in this novel,  as when Malcolm’s inexperience with sex is first described: “Malcolm was 16 and sex had been a latecomer to the party of his life. For some years he had observed the conversations of his peers converge on a single biological act, but had remained aloof. He had regarded their jokes, boasts and speculation as immature and, far worse, irrational. His had been the role of detached observer: distant, superior and immune. Or so he thought.” (p.8)

Another amusing moment: [Malcolm tells Brian] ‘I haven’t had sex yet. I’m a virgin.’ [and Brian asks] ‘You’re not some sort of pervert are you?’ [to which Malcolm replies] ‘Oh no. I’m a Scientist'” (p.26)

Or: “Malcolm could feel his face burning up. ‘Um, should I take my clothes off?’ He tried desperately to remind himself that this was science, that discipline and exactitude were all that mattered, but his body refused to listen.” (p.73)

What does such humour add to this story? What does the humorous tone add to the novel’s take on sex / adolescent sexuality, etc.? How does the humour shape our ideas about ‘Science’?

Beckett makes some (excellent and humorous) use of science as metaphor in Malcolm and Juliet. Consider:

  • “Malcolm was broken, too dispirited even to feel frustration, for frustration requires a certain force against which it can push. Indeed these were troubled times, times of distracted days and restless nights, times in need of a cure.” (p.82)
  • “Brian and Kevin were the first to arrive. Brian advanced ahead of his friend, a bottle of wine in his hand, his hair still wet from the shower, aftershave surrounding him like a low-rent force field.” (p.102)
  • “Like the first sneeze of an epidemic, the information was loose, and once loose it would spread. And the spreading would be uncontrolled, for the human being has developed no immunity to information.” (p.118)

We get moments throughout the novel when science itself is put under the (philosophical) microscope. We also get a number of moments when the scientific method is measured up against more instinctive approaches to life in general. For example:

  • When Malcolm’s mum, Camille, comments: ‘Nothing’s impartial, Malcolm. It’s what makes life so much fun.’ ‘Science is,’ Malcolm replied. ‘Science is what witchcraft dresses up as, when out in public,’ Camille told him, and he would have argued but he knew she was only teasing.” (pp.21-22)
  • “Frank, Malcolm’s dad, was […] a traveling salesperson for a herbal remedies company and a fervent believer in the proposition that rational thought would only divert humankind from its search for truth. Much as Malcolm loved him, he despaired at his lack of faith in the scientific method, and it was probably for the best that Frank was often away on business.” (p.22)
  • “Malcolm had never had much time for the sloppy complications of normality. No, he was a Scientist, and Science was all about method. This was by far the most sensible, scientific, way of doing things.” (p.35)
  • “Malcolm didn’t believe in luck. He preferred to believe in Mathematics. With Mathematics it was a fairly simple matter to show that life’s cosmic coincidences, rather than being shaped by strange and mystical undercurrents, were in fact the simple and inevitable consequence of random pattern generation. In a world of over six billion people, the day when some of them weren’t winning lotteries, seeing visions, or having premonitions, that would be the day to look for a divine explanation.” (p.50)
  • “It may have been reason that designed the first flying machines, but it took something beyond reason to test them….” (p.110)
  • “Soon, all around the hall, passions old and new were igniting as people took quick advantage of one of those rare moments when all the world’s rules slip away….” (p.136)
  • “Maybe there was more to life than Science after all.” (p.137)

On this note… Do our passions give us metaphors to make sense of life? I like how Beckett characterises these adolescents – the metaphors he uses when they are philosophising about life are drawn from their passions (Kevin – sculpture: ‘chip, chip, chip’) (Charlotte – movies: ‘frame by frame’) (Malcolm – science: see above). I need to look closer at the other characters – possibly martial arts influences Juliet? hmmm. Beckett’s use of metaphor, as always, is brilliant.

Adolescent relationships (and sex and love and gender, etc.)

  • What ideas about ‘sexuality’ are explored in the novel? How?
  • Are our notions of adolescent friendship challenged by this novel?
  • how is love described? (Note p.49 – the end of the chapter titled, Phonics)
  • What role does humour play in this novel? How does it shape our engagement with the topics explored by this story (say, friendship, sex, or science)?
  • How are the characters gendered in this novel? Is gender toyed with by the author? (I ask this last question because of the following elaborate simile: “‘You don’t have it. You don’t have the X-factor. You see,’ Brian put a hand on Kevin’s shoulder, like a father explaining combustion engines to his son, ‘she’s what you’d call an A, whereas you Kev, let’s be honest, are more of a B. In this world Bs don’t get As. It’s not fair but hey, what is?'” (p.24). Beckett could have limited this description to ‘like a father’ or ‘in a fatherly fashion’, for example, but instead he qualifies it in a very particular way…). I also quite like the way Juliet is characterised (consider pp.30-32 or p.84, for example).

A couple of other questions:

  • How could this novel have been told differently? What if it were told exclusively through the eyes of Malcolm? Or Brian? Or Juliet, etc.? Or Malcolm’s mum? Or an examiner/teacher? How would this change the story?
  • What if the story were begun or ended in a different way – in a different place in the narrative? 
  • As a character, what does Brian add to the story? Why include information about his father? What does it add to our experience of his character and his role in this story about sex?

Texts that invite comparison

Perhaps overly obvious, but other YA fictions that explore the ‘issue’ of adolescent sexuality (Paula Boock’s Dare, Truth or Promise springs to mind, but there are heaps of others that could serve for comparison). Consider the following review comments from the Text Publishing website (and their focus on the sexuality of the novel):

‘Vigorous and lively characters… Beckett has always had a wry humour in his excellent novels about young people on the brink of life, but in Malcolm and Juliet, the humour is in charge. This is one of those novels you carry around quoting from…The characterisation is deft, the plot cunning and the treatment as light as a pavlova. This is a butterfly of a novel, high-spirited, light-hearted, and funny right to the last line… Let me urge nervous librarians, parents and teachers to buy several copies ofMalcolm and Juliet. And to read one of them.’ Trevor Agnew, Magpies

‘A candid and funny look at the issues of teenage sex and sexuality (including homosexuality)… It is refreshing to read a gritty story about teenage angst where nobody dies or gets pregnant. This novel…would make a great movie. NZ Herald

 Margie Thomson compares Malcolm and Juliet with Melvin Burgess’s Doing it, writing: “The two authors have chosen remarkably similar characters and much the same “issues” — obsession, confusion, exploitation, insecurity, friendship, love and “in love” — all hot topics among teenagers, as always.

Des Hunt likes protagonists who are junior scientists

How to use this blog

Mindmaps help me think critically.  They help me see the links between things and plot a course through all the observations and questions that a text provokes when I read it ‘as a text.’  This blog is a mindmap of sorts; full of random thoughts and relevant-seeming quotations or ideas.

  • There is a tag cloud to the right of the blog, which shows the topics I am exploring as ‘tags.’
  • You can also use the search bar at the bottom of the page to see if a particular word/book/author/theme is mentioned.
  • Each time I bring an author into the discussion for the first time, I add an “Introducing the author” blog. This is easily found at the beginning of the section under that author.
  • I have a section titled ‘Blog Notes’ in which I explain my blogging style.
  • I have a ‘Literary Resources’ section which includes general ideas on literature and its study as well as the questions I apply to any text I study.
  • These questions (eg. Character Questions) may be useful to any other reader wishing to look at this text differently (refer to very early on in the blogging history of this section).

Beckett’s Malcolm and Juliet: a History

Awards won:

  • NZ Post Awards for Children & Young Adults – 2005 Winner, Young Adult Fiction Category
  • CLFNZ Notable Books List 2005
  • LIANZA – The Esther Glen Award 2005 Winner

Publishing History:

First published by Longacre Press (2004), Malcolm and Juliet has also been published by Text Publishing (2009). In the acknowledgements (of my Longacre Press copy), Beckett writes: “Malcolm and Juliet began life as a stage play and was first performed in 1997.”

Bibliography of secondary literature:

Author information:

Refer earlier blog: “Introducing Bernard Beckett

Bernard Beckett

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