Jessica Kapp’s BODY PARTS and the Audience/Reader Awareness Conundrum

How’s this for an appealing story?  It’s about a young woman whose body will be a vessel that will save untold numbers of lives.  Unfortunately, a powerful company wants to take her out if they can’t control her, so they assign someone to do the former.  Fortunately, a dark and handsome man is ready, able, and willing to protect the young woman, no matter the cost.

What story am I talking about?

The Terminator, of course.

Why do I bring up James Cameron’s 1984 classic?  Because Body Parts operates in a manner that is similar and dissimilar in interesting ways.  (And if you haven’t seen The Terminator or Terminator 2: Judgment Day, do yourself a favor and go see them now, whether or not you like action movies.  They are marvelous examples of storytelling.)

Body Parts, a novel by Jessica Kapp, tells the story of Tabitha, a young woman who begins the novel as the ward of a seemingly perfect orphanage.  Everyone in the Center is extremely healthy and well cared-for.  Tabitha herself, with her long, red hair, is perfect…aside from a slight issue that affects her heart.  The Act One 15 Minutes In Turning Point of the novel occurs when Ms. Preen takes Tabitha for a ride to meet her new foster parents.  Yay!  Everything is fantastic!  Until Ms. Preen gives her a knockout drug.  When Tabitha wakes up, she discovers that there never was a foster family.  The Center, you see, carves up these incredibly healthy young people to get their…body parts.  (I liked the book a lot!  Purchase it from your local indie store!  Or Kobo.  Or Barnes & Noble.  Or Amazon.)

Don’t worry; divulging that much of the plot doesn’t ruin anything.  After all, here’s some of the description from the book jacket:

Raised in an elite foster center off the California coast, sixteen-year-old Tabitha has been protected from the outside world. Her trainers at the center have told her she’ll need to be in top physical condition to be matched with a loving family. So she swims laps and shaves seconds off her mile time, dreaming of the day when she’ll meet her adoptive parents.

But when Tabitha’s told she’s been paired, instead of being taken to her new home, she wakes up immobile on a hospital bed. Moments before she’s sliced open, a group of renegade teenagers rescues her, and she learns the real reason she’s been kept in shape: PharmPerfect, a local pharmaceutical giant, is using her foster program as a replacement factory for their pill-addicted clients’ failing organs.

So, unless a friend blindfolded you and put the book in your hands and forced you to start at the first page, you knew the basic thrust of the first several chapters of the story.  You knew the big reveal that changes Tabitha’s life forever.

Same thing with The Terminator or Terminator 2.  Unfortunately, the surprises from the films are no longer surprises.  Everyone is fully aware that Arnold Schwarzenegger is the bad-guy Terminator who wants to terminate the nice waitress woman named Sarah Connor.  Everyone knows he’s a cyborg.  In 1984, you may have been lucky enough to see the film without knowing a single detail other than the title.  Every twist and turn would be a revelation!  In Terminator 2, James Cameron took great pains to conceal the fact that Arnold was the good guy.  Alas, in Body Parts and in The Terminator, the audience knows much more about the protagonist’s life than she does for quite some time.  (Think about it; Body Parts is “that book about the teens who are sold for parts, but one of them escapes, etc.”  The Terminator is “that movie about that woman who will give birth to the guy who will save humanity, so robot Arnold Schwarzenegger wants to kill her, etc.”)

I thought it would be interesting to discuss these two works in conjunction with each other because they approach their conceits so differently.  In The Terminator, you’ll recall, Arnold uses the phone book to track down all of the Sarah Connors in L.A.  The important one, of course, has a fortunate middle name that makes her last on the list.  Sarah sees this creepy-looking dude scoping her, so she ducks into Tech-Noir, a cheekily named disco.  Shootout.  Then it turns out that the creepy, sweaty guy was actually protecting her.  Now, Sarah is no fool.  She (and the audience) need some exposition.  What the heck is going on?  Kyle Reese hotwires a car and tells her about the Future War, that her son will one day be the savior of all mankind.

Then more car chases and action interspersed with some romantic scenes and powerfully drawn characters.

Chapter 5 of Body Parts is the equivalent to the above exposition-in-the-car scene.  Tabitha has woken from her pharmaceutical slumber and meets Gavin and the other members of the team dedicated to liberating young people from the grip of the Center.  Gavin lays it all out in some healthy paragraphs set in the group’s “headquarters” and Tabitha accepts her new reality.  “Parts,” she says.  “I was being raised for parts.”

As I read the novel, I was wondering why Tabitha believed so easily and quickly.  Now, to some extent, I am perfectly happy to just go with it.  It’s a book.  Sarah Connor believes Kyle Reese’s insane time travel/all-powerful computers narrative because she just had a giant Austrian man shooting at her.  Ms. Kapp does something smart that forces Tabitha to deliberate more.  After Gavin’s explanation, Tabitha (on her own) meets Mary, a much younger girl who was rescued–but not before the bad guys took her cornea and kidney.  Writers must give the audience a reason to believe, just as much as characters must convince each other what is really happening to them.

The narrative of Body Parts is far looser than those of the Terminator films, which is both good and bad.  On one hand, those movies are awesome.  On the other hand, Body Parts doesn’t want to be a non-stop, pulse-pounding action story…and that’s okay.  Instead, Ms. Kapp has other freedom and responsibilities.  The looser story just means that she’s not as high on the scale with respect to plot.  That’s perfectly fine, so long as she kicks up some other elements of her book.  Here’s another way to think of it.  This is a chart I made for Lee Martin’s wonderful Late One Night.  That book is not at all a plot-heavy Tom Clancy book.  Instead, Mr. Martin focused more time and attention on character and style than plot.  It’s okay to go easy on some elements of our work so long as we compensate in another way.  

lee martin late one night chartBody Parts is an entertaining near-future science fiction novel that will entertain its YA audience, but will also appeal to those who are not very Y.  Tabitha is a compelling character, and Ms. Kapp ensures there is a lot going on around her.  Tabitha experiences her first love triangle!  Her first…love feelings!  Her first escape from people who want to cut her up and sell her organs!  Ms. Kapp juggles her plot and its subplots in a felicitous manner and wraps things up in a way that I’ll just say that I wasn’t expecting.

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