In Part 1 of this (currently seven-part) series, I tried to find the origin of the magic in my favorite line from A Corner of the Universe. This time around, I will discuss a quote from the viewpoint of one of my favorite characters in all of fiction: John Cleaver.
"I glanced at her, and she smiled back, weak and...something. How was I supposed to know?" - I Am Not a Serial Killer
If you haven't read Dan Wells' rockin' debut novel, you probably have no clue why this quote is so special. You may even find the quote annoying, because it breaks the usual mold of fiction, where the narrator knows everything he describes. John Cleaver is not a usual narrator, however. He has sociopathic tendencies. He's slightly unreliable. The voice Mr. Wells gives him is vibrant and melancholy, yet strong just the same.
I could really relate to John Cleaver (no, I'm not a sociopath) because I'm male and pretty much the same age. Dan Wells portrayed him very well. His attraction (almost squeaky-clean attraction, I'll specify) to his classmate Brooke really resonates with me. She's realistic, wholesome, and compassionate. Unfortunately for both Brooke and John, John isn't too compassionate. He doesn't process emotion quite "normally," if I may use that term.
John's inability to pick up on emotional and physical cues makes this quote magical. From reading his narration up to the point of this quotes, it's pretty clear that Brooke likes him a lot. Despite this, John is virtually clueless to that fact. I think deep down he's supposed to know, but his narration omits it. If he did, this quote would never have been, and John wouldn't have been nearly as great a character.
This quote is sad, it's bloody sad. It's 1st-person POV from John, but I can feel the pain in Brooke, even though John doesn't. That speaks volumes about Dan Wells' ability to tell a story. My rule-of-thumb is that if a reader is invested in my characters, they'll be able to make the reader feel what they feel. It's absolute magic that I can feel what Brooke feels without the narrator ever picking up on it himself.
"I glanced at her, and she smiled back, weak and...something." That little adjective, "weak," coupled with the context, creates a solid image of Brooke's face. She wants John to like her even though he's moreorless diagnosed to be sociopathic. She sees right through his exterior, however, into the John we know from reading the story. John and Brooke are both enthralled with one another, but the situation is so confused and bleak.
"How was I supposed to know?" This is where John gets a little unreliable. As I mentioned, I think John is supposed to have some inkling of what's going on with Brooke. In spite of this, he falls back on his diagnosis to avoid dwelling on things. Either that, or he really doesn't have a clue. Both possibilities are bad for Brooke, and by extension John.
This approach to teen romance is, I'll say it once more, magic. I can't help but sorry for both Brooke and John, even though I'm not the type to get hung up on fictional characters. That's power. That's magic.