If literature is in trouble these days, it's not just because we're all on the Internet. Sure, it's hard to focus with a million tweets and popups and ads for shoes (especially ads for shoes) competing for your attention, but that's not the reason why more people don't set aside their devices and read novels for a couple of hours every night. The real problem is that we're living in an era with an unprecedented potential for catastrophe. How can you possibly be expected to wrench your attention away from, say, climate change to dwell on the torturous inner life of a single character? It seems self-indulgent to spend time thinking about anyone's feelings, whether real or fictional.
That's why books like Hazel Newlevant's graphic memoir No Ivy League are so deceptive. In their very quietness, their unassuming scope, they embody a radical challenge to the world's dominant discourse. It's such a radical challenge, in fact, that you have to change your whole perspective to notice it at all. This is true of No Ivy League whether or not you're in Newlevant's target demographic of older teens. Newlevant has the audacity to ask you to turn your back on all the earthshaking events in the news that are going to affect your life for the worse any time now. Instead, they (to use the pronoun Newlevant prefers) request that you let yourself respond to the subtle emotional upheavals they experienced one summer as a teenager. Why give your attention to such a humble story? That's the most radical question of all.
Newlevant's tale does have some newsy import. It addresses race, class and gender while trying (and mostly succeeding) to avoid hashtaggable truisms. When the middle-class, homeschooled Hazel signs up to work with a youth forestry crew, they encounter kids whose backgrounds are utterly unlike theirs. A counselor explains that the program usually employs "at-risk" teens. "Why did you hire me, then?" Hazel asks. "You just seemed so earnest!" the counselor responds blithely. "We thought you'd be a good influence on the crew." Neither he nor the other leaders seem to have considered the difficulties their "good influence" might have fitting in.
As Hazel and the other kids pull sheets of encroaching ivy off trees, their interactions show how difficult it can be to navigate race and class differences. But while No Ivy League prompts the reader to think about these issues, Newlevant's main goal is simply to get you to slow down and reflect on the thoughts and feelings of a shy adolescent in an unfamiliar situation. The simplicity and elegance of this appeal are the products of sophisticated craftsmanship. Newlevant, who's won two Ignatz Awards, combines sheer talent with the supple versatility of an adroit graphical storyteller. The former quality is clear in their skillful use of monochrome watercolor, a medium whose difficulty is often underestimated. No Ivy League's pages are delicately shaded, with judicious pops of detail. Beyond that, Newlevant makes countless acute choices regarding scale, composition and pacing. Even when a single incident seems trivial, there's a complex structure operating around it.
That's most evident in the book's catalyzing moment, when one of Hazel's coworkers targets them with a graphic sexual taunt. Newlevant draws the lead-up to the encounter in a fairly standard assembly of small panels, then gives the key moment a two-page spread and a sweeping shift in perspective. On subsequent pages, they indicate Hazel's complicated reaction by violating both the book's previously established realistic style and the accepted rules of drawing comic panels. The visuals express the complexity of the incident without melodrama, even as some of the other characters shrug it off as no big deal.
Should the reader echo them? Is one rude comment worth getting worked up about? By posing that question, Newlevant points to the hidden subversiveness of literature itself. In a world dominated by screaming headlines of global importance, it's hard to pull up short and devote your attention to anything as fragile and transitory as a feeling. No Ivy League may seem like a modest achievement at first glance, but it's got the audacity to direct you (ever so politely) to change your whole habit of thought. That's colossal.
Etelka Lehoczky has written about books for The Atlantic, The Los Angeles Review of Books and The New York Times. She tweets at @EtelkaL.