Thu
Jan 12 2012 4:00pm
Intrigue and Lasers in Manhattan: The Young Unicorns

Technically, The Young Unicorns is the third book in Madeleine L’Engle’s Austin series. But in it, the Austins take a decidedly supporting role, and Vicky’s first person narration has been replaced with a third person narrative that flits from one person to the next, allowing L’Engle to show aspects of the story that Vicky could not possibly have known — along with sparing us some of Vicky’s teenage angst. (It’s still there, but confined to just a few pages.) And, perhaps because L’Engle decided that the Austins needed a bit of fun and intrigue, The Young Unicorns abandons the warm coming of age family story for mystery, intrigue, rich ethical debates and a touch of science fiction. It also deals with many of the same ethical issues raised by The Arm of the Starfish — although considerably less problematically.

Thus, in many ways, it “feels” more like one of the O’Keefe books than one of the Austin books — a feeling only strengthened by the presence of characters from the O’Keefe books. But I have to say, I enjoyed it considerably more than the O’Keefe books.

Part of this is doubtless the setting. The Young Unicorns is set in and about the Cathedral of St. John the Divine, a place L’Engle loved and knew well. She worked there as a librarian and later a writer-in-residence, and her love for and knowledge of that part of New York City shines through. The setting also allows her to have fun with such things as hidden and abandoned New York City subway tunnels (amazingly with very few rats, although admittedly the rats may be an 80s/90s thing), antique stores, and the issues with keeping a large dog in Manhattan, details which add to the authenticity of the book.

And these details are needed, because, frankly, the plot has more than a few large gaping holes. It begins well, when some of the Austin children and their new friends, Emily Gregory, a talented and recently blinded pianist, and Josiah Davidson, a former gang member who prefers to be known as Dave, rub a lamp and summon a genie. Which is the sort of thing that I can completely believe would happen in Manhattan.

However, something appears to be — how do I put this — slightly suspicious with the genie, and not merely because, well, despite what I said, genies do not typically make random appearances in Manhattan antique stores. (As far as I know. I can say nothing for the city’s other four boroughs.) Nonetheless, and somewhat surprisingly, not everyone immediately jumps into genie investigation: the Austin children still have to do their homework, and Emily still must practice under the watchful eye of the peppery Mr. Theo (one of L’Engle’s better drawn adult characters, adding a needed touch of occasional humor). But the mysterious events nearby can’t be completely ignored, especially after Dave, finds that both his old gang and certain members of the cathedral may be up to something nefarious indeed, related to the genie.

I’m uncertain about what to say, exactly, about Emily Gregory. On the one hand, a positive image of a disabled character is always a plus, particularly one who, like Emily, realizes that a disability is not the end of doing things or happiness, nor a requirement to become an angelic and inspiring person. On the other hand, Emily can be positive in part because her hearing is so good, she can almost echolocate, the way bats do — developed to compensate for her lack of sight. If none of the legally blind people I know can actually echolocate, alas, this ability is a staple of fiction about the blind, and it’s not completely unlikely that the musical Emily would have developed heightened senses. What is unlikely is that she would have developed them this quickly, given that the accident that blinded her does not appear to have happened that long ago, and she is still adjusting to using her cane. But that’s a quibble.

Less of a quibble is my issue with the entire subplot about the lasers. I am aware that lasers were at their very earliest stage of development when this book was written so I am willing to handwave the various technical issues, but the idea that anyone would run around New York City with a genie and a lamp to conduct what are essentially laser lobotomies on people is just...ludicrous seems too weak a word here. (And no, this is not played for laughs.) And yet I’m expected to believe that at least three grown men and various formerly tough gang members fixated on violence are all gung ho about this plan, although to be fair the gang members have, as it were, rubbed the lamp. (I don’t know how intentional this was, but L’Engle’s language as she discusses rubbing the lamp and the laser treatments that follow have a sexual tone to them that really does not help.)

To his credit, Canon Thomas Tallis, visiting from other L’Engle books, strongly protests the plan, not on the grounds of pure silliness, but on the ethical ground that removing choices from people — even the choices of people to do wrong — is evil and wrong. Tallis’ actual word is “monstrous,” and whatever the absurdity and impracticality of the original plan, it does lead to one of L’Engle’s most forthright defenses of the importance of freedom — and a discussion, even more relevant today, perhaps, of the choices between security and freedom.

It also leads, again, to a discussion of one of L’Engle’s favorite themes: the fear of science in the wrong hands. In this case, the threat – that supposedly benign lasers can and will be used to remove free will — is at least somewhat more genuine than the threat in The Arm of the Starfish, and if the villains make the typical Bond villain seem like a rational, low key planner, that threat does add to the tension in the rest of the book. (A kidnapping and the potential burning of a city landmark also help to raise the threat.)

L’Engle’s plotting is tighter here than usual — a seemingly random statement about Coriolanus turns out to have an actual plot purpose later in the book, and dropped hints can show attentive readers that something is definitely up with Dr. Austin and the bishop well before the book’s characters are aware of it. And if some of the themes of this book, her saddened observation of a rising tide of violence and hatred in the 20th century, her focus on the ability to choose between love and hate — have made regular appearances in previous L’Engle books, and will appear again, here they are woven together in a relatively engaging plot. The appearance of familiar L’Engle characters — notably Canon Tallis, although Josiah Davidson and Mr. Theo will also return in future books — also helps.

Ignore the title, though. I don’t know who came up with it, but although the book has a genie, a very loyal dog, science fictiony laser things and a blind girl able to use echolocation, it doesn’t have any unicorns. The unicorns would have to wait for a couple more books — and then, they would not get mentioned in the title.

One more minor tidbit to continue the ongoing discussion in the comments: In the previous Austin book, The Moon by Night, the Austins refer to Meg Murry and Calvin O’Keefe as fictional characters. In this book, Dr. Austin is fully aware of Calvin O’Keefe’s research on starfish, and a few references by secondary characters show that the events of this book are meant to have occurred just a few months after the events of The Arm of the Starfish.

 


Mari Ness admits that she has occasionally rubbed lamps in antique stores, just to see what might happen. She lives in central Florida.

This article is part of The Madeleine L'Engle Reread: ‹ previous | index | next ›
21 comments
Pamela Adams
1. Pam Adams
I'm coming to the conclusion that Meg Murry has a secret career as a writer (it's not just mathematics that has her tied to a computer!) and wrote the fictionalized Wrinkle in Time herself. After all, someone has to pay for that island in Portugal.

If I recall, the reference in Moon By Night is to tessering, and we don't get any more, so the rest of the series clearly aren't books in the characters' universe.
Zvi
2. Zvi
I think you're being too hard on L'Engle with regard to 'laser lobotomies'. Remote stimulation of the pleasure centre of the brain is not so bizarre (Niven popularized this idea some time later with his benign puppeteer weapon, a 'tasp'.) This was relatively current research at the time that the book was written -- the pop science press introduced the idea that an electrode implanted in the pleasure centre of the brain of a rat would cause the rat to endlessly give itself stimulation until it fell over dead. L'Engle's laser handwave simply makes this possible remotely, rather than with an implanted electrode, and the consequences thereof -- i.e., you do what the person with the pleasure wand says, removing your free will -- foreshadows the crack cocaine epidemic of the 80s on those very same New York streets.

This pop-science idea comes up in some unexpected non-genre places -- even a John D. Macdonald pulp novel about his two-fisted protagonist Travis McGee.
Pamela Adams
3. Pam Adams
Sigh- now I'm trying to remember which McGee it was.....

What I found unbelievable was the whole 'everyone will believe the archbishop and do what he says' subplot. Maybe archbishops were different then?
Zvi
4. Sovay
On the other hand, Emily can be positive in part because her hearing is so good, she can almost echolocate, the way bats do — developed to compensate for her lack of sight.

There is apparently a man who can echolocate (http://www.mensjournal.com/the-blind-man-who-taught-himself-to-see/print/). But I accept that she shouldn't have developed the ability overnight.
Pamela Adams
5. Pam Adams
What I loved about this book was the picture of New York- the odd people in Greenwich Village, Rob's friend the rabbi, and the priest who's getting fat because he did too many home visits. (Mmmm, tamales)
Zvi
6. between4walls
I love the title, but being poorly versed in early Christian writings, I can't figure out if the "apocryphal writings of St. Macrina" of the epigraph actually exist or not. Anyone here know?
The only text partly authored by Macrina the Younger that I can find is De anima et resurrectione, an apparent dialogue between her and her brother.
Zvi
7. between4walls
And name of the brother (who wrote the dialogue) is Gregory, as in Emily Gregory.
Zvi
8. Huimang
Thank you for another interesting read of a L'Engle favorite. One thing that's occurred to me as I go back to this one is that it features characters of color (may not be the right term, but certainly Latino) who are actually rather realistic and interesting, as opposed to noble and pure and innocent and boring. Dave is half Puerto Rican, if I remember rightly, and there's the very appealing Puerto Rican Dean of the Cathedral.
Speaking of which, I've thought of another overlap with A Wrinkle in Time, though it may be a memory lapse--weren't the "suspicious Oriental scientists" Shasti and Shen-shu also mentioned as Meg's father's colleagues? Did I make that up?
Okay, from here on I am going to complain about a completely unimportant detail, so feel no need to read further--but--L'Engle, who makes a big point of how important music is to her and her characters, obviously has NO IDEA what an English horn is. An English horn is an oboe's big brother, also known as a cor anglais, and the chances of a trade school student in 1960s NY being a virtuoso English hornist--who doesn't ever mention playing the oboe? VERY SMALL. Sorry, no more capslock. An English horn also cannot be "battered and dented," it's wooden and wood doesn't dent that I know of, and you can't just pick it up and start playing, you need to prepare a reed first. In short, it is not a French horn, thank you very much.
Goodness, that got long. Sorry about that. Thanks again.
Mari Ness
9. MariCats
@Pam Adams - My guess is that L'Engle originally intended the ground in reality Austins to think of the Murrys as fictional, then changed her mind as she saw the possibilities for crossovers -- which meant that by the end of the Austin series Vicky is involved with the imaginary country Charles Wallace was trying to help.

Regarding "everyone will follow the archbishop" -- he's depicted as having a lot of temporal power, along with being a very respected man who would be widely believed.

And I'm with you in agreeing that the descriptions of various New Yorkers is quite good.

@Zvi -- :: nods :: I should have been more clear in my post, and I wasn't. I really don't object so much to the lasers. My specific issue with the planned takeover of New York plot is that rather than just stick with the lasers, the bishop has decided to combine the lasers with a fake genie and a lamp. That's what I call overkill, especially since, as a bishop, he could easily have come up with some excuse to see troubled teenagers under the guise of "counseling" or some other charitable excuse, and just zap them that way, rather than dragging in a genie and a lamp and abandoned New York subway stations. Overkill.

@Sovay - I have no doubt that other senses can be trained to help compensate for blindness, but my issue here is that Emily really hasn't been blind for that long.

@between4walls -- Sts. Marcina the Elder and the Younger were both honored as scholars with a tremendous influence on the monastic movement, and St. Marcina the Younger had a popular Vita written about her and was supposedly quoted extensively in the dialogue her brother wrote about her. Her life has been generally overshadowed by that of her brother St. Basil.

I'm not entirely sure what writings L'Engle is referring to here, but I do know that several texts supposedly written by St. Basil probably weren't, so it's possible that some writings supposedly written by one of the St. Macrinas are also floating around somewhere.

I entirely missed that Emily Gregory might be named for St. Gregory -- thanks!
Mari Ness
10. MariCats
@Huimang -- Regarding L'Engle and musicians: it's clear here and in other books that the only two instruments she was familiar with were the piano and the organ. So I'm not surprised she messed up the French and English horns.

Shasti and Shen-Shu make a cameo appearance in A Wind in the Door, as L'Engle continued to play with crossover characters. Most of L'Engle's characters are white, but as you note she does feature Puerto Rican characters here (and evil Vespugians/South Americans later on), and I think we'll probably be discussing her Jewish and Native American characters (in A Swiftly Tilting Planet, A Severed Wasp and A Winter's Love) later.
Zvi
11. Meena
Re: English Horn. It's clear that L'Engle was not thinking of a French Horn, because she mentions Dave playing the solo from _Tristan und Isode_, which is in fact an English horn solo, and problably the most famous one ever written. It's still true that all English horn players are also and mostly primarily oboists.
Pamela Adams
12. Pam Adams
I woke up this morning thinking about Dave and his character arc. He's definitely my favorite character in this book, and I'd love to have seen more of him in future books. I liked the detail of 'needing' to keep keys to the cathedral, and that he gave them up at the end to the Dean.

I was really annoyed when I saw the family trees in the new editions to find out that he'd married Suzy- my least favorite Austin.
Zvi
13. between4walls
Emily has been blind for two years at this point, iirc.

@Pam Adams- Grown-up Dave shows up as a secondary character in A Severed Wasp, the sequel to A Small Rain. I disliked the book enough not to finish it, though, and I rarely dislike L'Engle's stuff.
Mari Ness
14. MariCats
@Pam Adams and @between4walls -- Yes! Since we've mentioned it, what's up with Dave marrying Suzy????

I'm at a loss.
Pamela Adams
15. Pam Adams
Marrying Emily would have made much more sense.
Zvi
16. between4walls
Dave/Emily is what I expected and what I wish had happened, they have such an intense connection in The Young Unicorns. At any rate, here are some possible reasons for Dave and Suzy marrying:

There's a hint when Suzy makes a fool of herself showing off to Dave about lasers. She feels proud that Dave will finally notice her and realize she's the same age as Emily (despite Suzy's immaturity). She already has a bit of a crush.

Dave and Suzy also share a practicality (? wrong word) that other characters don't approve of-- Suzy wanting science to cure Emily rather than a miracle, and Dave's going to trade school despite being offered a scholarship.

Spoilers for A Severed Wasp

------------------------------------

Emily travels the world and marries a foreigner, while Dave stays at the same cathedral, marrying a girl he's known since his teens. If they'd married, they might have had trouble reconciling her desire to see the world with his rootedness.

The subplot with Emily Davidson would fall apart if her mother were Emily Gregory, who could evaluate for herself whether or not the younger Emily had potential as a pianist. Also, the parallels and contrasts between their situations would look even more contrived.

Since it's Katherine's book, if she's not needed in the Emily subplot, there's less need for Dave and family to appear in the book much aside from his job.
Zvi
17. between4walls
Dave/Emily is what I expected and what I wish had happened, they have such an intense connection in The Young Unicorns. At any rate, here are some possible reasons for Dave and Suzy marrying:

There's a hint when Suzy makes a fool of herself showing off to Dave about lasers. She feels proud that Dave will finally notice her and realize she's the same age as Emily (despite Suzy's immaturity). She already has a bit of a crush.

Dave and Suzy also share a practicality (? wrong word) that other characters don't approve of-- Suzy wanting science to cure Emily rather than a miracle, and Dave's going to trade school despite being offered a scholarship.

Spoilers for A Severed Wasp

------------------------------------

Emily travels the world and marries a foreigner, while Dave stays at the same cathedral, marrying a girl he's known since his teens. If they'd married, they might have had trouble reconciling her desire to see the world with his rootedness.

The subplot with Emily Davidson would fall apart if her mother were Emily Gregory, who could evaluate for herself whether or not the younger Emily had potential as a pianist. Also, the parallels and contrasts between their situations would look even more contrived.

Since it's Katherine's book, if she's not needed in the Emily subplot, there's less need for Dave and family to appear in the book much aside from his job.
Zvi
18. between4walls
Sorry for the double post!
Mari Ness
19. MariCats
@between4walls - Sometimes it happens. I blame Cthulhu's continuing influence on the internet.

Back to your comment -- yes, the book does have that one indication of a minor crush/interest on Suzy's part, but the clear relationship is between Emily and Dave. I can understand that Dave would have no interest in travel, but I don't think that necessarily bars marriage, either -- sure, it would be difficult, with one spouse travelling while the other didn't, but L'Engle portrayed other marriages in her adult fiction enduring much worse problems. Especially in The Severed Wasp.

My sense is that Dave and Suzy show up because Emily Gregory needs to have parents who can't evaluate her piano talent, but who understand the demands of a musical career because they have a friend and parent involved in music. Dave already had an involvement with the cathedral, so his presence makes sense there. But I still find it baffling, and, er, probably something we can discuss again once we reach The Severed Wasp.
Zvi
20. AMH
Zvi, I think the John D. MacDonald book is Nightmare in Pink - people are lobotomized and taught to do various types of things (like jump, or work out) with the pleasure center of the brain stimulus for reward.
Zvi
21. HelenS
Clarinets are sometimes made of metal. I don't see offhand why an English horn couldn't be.

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