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Book Reviews

Spider’s Web

by Sharon Stewart

Don Tapscott (Growing Up Digital) suggests that use of the Internet is changing the way children actually think. Mary Beaty, frequent contributor to these pages, makes a convincing case that the Internet is a sort of millennial vacant lot, the last territory in which our overprogrammed children have the opportunity for free play. As I watch children in the library printing out grainy pictures of raccoons and forwarding bad jokes to each other, I remain a fascinated skeptic, unconvinced of the profundity of web culture but eager to see what transpires.

One fact remains, however. For many teenagers, the web is part of the wallpaper. It affects their vocabulary and their frame of reference. It is a factor in their complex hierarchies and groupings. For writers of contemporary young adult fiction it is part of the stuff of their subject. In Spider’s Web, Sharon Stewart uses cyberstuff to construct a suspenseful teen thriller. The novel opens with a wedding. Sara’s mother is marrying. Sara, nicknamed Spider, loathes her new stepfather, a fabulously wealthy computer tycoon. She loathes her new home, a state-of-the-art smart house with a master computer that controls security, temperature, even the art on the walls. She considers her mother a betrayer, her stepfather a nerd, and her new step-brother a creep. Sara hates school, pushing away the one kid who makes tentative friendship overtures. Sara is a literary first cousin to Elizabeth in Margaret Buffie’s Who Is Frances Rain?, another disgruntled and disagreeable teenager with stepfather problems.

There isn’t much to warm to in Sara’s R.L. (real life). But there are other worlds to inhabit, on the screen. Bored and lonely, Sara, previously uninterested in surfing, starts browsing on the Net. It becomes a safe arena for her anger and she begins flaming people left and right. Up to this point in the story, Stewart’s description of the Internet seems clichéd and simply buys into the notion that Internet surfers are a bunch of losers with no friends. But then Sara’s new persona on the Net spills over into her real human relationships and matters get more interesting. She has been enduring harassment from a boy at school and one day, liberated by her screen persona, she turns on him and defends herself for the first time. From this point we see the development of Sara from girl to grrrl, a change that infuses energy into her character and ultimately lets her open up to friendship.

Stewart also makes innovative use of e-mail in her story. Mysterious electronic messages from a strangely untraceable correspondent start appearing in Sara’s electronic mailbox. They are casual and friendly but their anonymity gives them a chilling edge. She begins to feel she is being stalked, invaded. This is the other half of the story. The stalking moves from virtual to real in the dramatic conclusion in which a temporary power cut leaves Sara’s wired home vulnerable to invasion and Sara truly on her own. In this final scene various details concerning Sara’s early life are neatly woven into the plot. There is one big revelation that is just surprising enough and the whole is a very nice bit of thriller construction.

The use of cyberstuff presents several challenges to Stewart. One is that material from the screen doesn’t always translate well to the page. Reading transcriptions of video games, for example, tends to be about as interesting as reading a musical score…okay if you’re a musical genius, otherwise a pale echo of the real thing.

“Spider sent her image charging straight into the wall of the Maze. It dissolved with an odd singing sound, then reformed behind her.

Ahead, she could see two ways to move. One diagonal corridor seemed to lead directly toward the heart of the maze.”

This kind of thing is more interesting to click on than to read about. The most successful uses of computer games in fiction, such as Diana Wieler’s RanVan books and Gillian Rubinstein’s Skymaze, create strong metaphorical links between the game and real life. In Spider’s Web I found myself wanting to get back to the real story.

Another area where the screen and page make uneasy bedfellows has to do with the use of crude language. One evening when Sara is idly surfing she discovers a sort of insult site. “They were using words she’d never even seen written down. It was kind of like a war, with each writer trying to outdo the previous one in obscenity. It was gross, really gross.” When Sara decides to participate in this site, and later when she applies her new vocabulary in real life, she ends up calling people “barfheads,” “toadface,” and “stinking scumbag.” These are book insults, imaginative and a bit quirky. But they are not the insults of ravers on the screen, where imagination and originality count for little. It feels as if Stewart is pulling her punches here.

A new mode of thinking, identity in flux, trying to find your own territory – these all refer equally to the age of the Internet and to adolescence. Perhaps the young adult novel will become the emblematic fiction of our time.