FEBRUARY 1, 2017
WHEN I WAS IN JUNIOR HIGH, my friends and I spent hours writing notes to each other every day, passing the folded bits of paper between classes, during recess, across rows of seats. These notes weren’t just little, one-sentence missives; they were fairly substantial pieces of writing, often running multiple pages. I went to a boarding school, so we already spent most of our not-particularly-interesting waking hours together. What else we had to write about I have no idea. But I do remember the roil of emotions these notes could arouse — the giddiness I felt when I got a flurry of notes all at once, the anxiety that gripped me as I unfolded one from a boy I liked, the sense of purpose with which I got down to the important task of writing back.
Do kids write paper notes today, in the age of texting? In Lindsey Lee Johnson’s new novel, The Most Dangerous Place on Earth, one student does — to his own peril. Set in Mill Valley, an affluent town in Marin County, a San Francisco suburb, where Johnson herself was born and raised, the book takes on the troubles and thrills of adolescence by following a group of students from eighth grade to senior year. In the first chapter, Tristan, the school nerd, writes a love note to his crush Cally and sticks it in her locker. News spreads fast in high school and of course, Cally is not the only one who sees Tristan’s note. Soon enough the cyberbullying begins, with Tristan’s Facebook “friends” taunting him about the letter online. The abuse continues until it proves to be too much for Tristan and he commits suicide.
The novel then follows a cast of a dozen or so characters as they deal with the repercussions of their classmate’s death. Each of the main chapters is told from the perspective of a different student, centering on a crisis he or she faces. These chapters are separated by shorter passages told from the point of view of Miss Nicoll, an optimistic, 23-year-old teacher. The result is a novel that feels episodic in structure, in the manner of TV shows like Gossip Girl or The O.C., which feature privileged, discontented teenagers going through glamorous, larger-than-life problems. Like these TV shows, The Most Dangerous Place on Earth is high on melodrama and full of car accidents, drug abuse, and illicit sex.
The overall message, as espoused in the title, is that under the pretty exterior of these students’ affluent lives roil secret troubles and serious hazards. These hazards run the gamut but all seem to have the same cause: the lack of the right kind of parental affection and attention. Each child experiences a different kind of terror. Among the characters there is Abigail, an A-student, who worries about not being pretty and finds the adult attention she craves in the arms of Mr. Ellison, her thirtysomething English teacher. Social media plays a large role in her story — their relationship is finally exposed on Snapchat. Another student, Nick, is on the other end of the spectrum from Abigail. He’s a drug dealer and SAT-test scammer, who tries to find true human connection by following a girl into a religious cult. Elisabeth, a shy girl who doesn’t have friends because she’s so intimidatingly beautiful, is coaxed into throwing a party when her mom goes out of town. The resulting rager ruins all the nice things in the house.
Johnson makes a valiant effort to draw out the reader’s empathy for each of these characters. The novel puts us in the minds of familiar high school archetypes — the nerd and the popular jock, the preppie and the hippie, the druggie and the drug dealer — to illuminate the psychology behind all the students’ bad decisions, filling in their individual hopes and desires, fears and humiliations. Ironically, it is the archetypes that individualize the students, who are otherwise, with rare exception, uniformly wealthy and white — probably unavoidably so, considering the community the novel seeks to portray. At times, though, the archetypes often feel so familiar that they fall into stereotypes: the socially clueless nerd who spends recess in the teacher’s office, the popular jock who taunts and bullies that nerd, the slightly chubby girl who keeps sleeping with the jock, pretending she doesn’t care if he’s not her boyfriend.
Then there’s the one protagonist of color, Dave Chu. The good-at-math, terrible-at-English student struggles to live up to his stereotypically Asian parents’ expectations. Dave works hard, but his parents keep urging him to work harder: “On his report card, it was not enough to have that hard-won column of B-pluses; in his parents’ eyes he might as well have failed.” We’ve seen this depiction of Asian students before and often. Even Glee did an episode about the B+ being an “Asian F” a few years ago.
Still, there are moments to admire in Johnson’s depictions of these students’ minds. The book’s representation of Dave’s struggles in English class are especially poignant, illuminating the disconnect between a teacher’s well-meaning directives and a student’s potentially mangled understanding of them. Dave tries to keep up with his teacher’s tips through copious, but ineffectual, note taking:
Mr. Ellison does not like semicolons! But you can use them sometimes.
Pronouns: Mr. Ellison does like He. He does not like You.
There is a rule about They. It is bad for some reason. Choose He or She instead!
As a rule, adults in Mill Valley are clueless about how to reach the youth. Preoccupied with their own work, social lives, and divorce proceedings, they’re very generous with their money, while being very stingy with their time and attention. Parental negligence is held up as the main catalyst behind the troubles that plague these designer-fashion clad, BMW-driving kids — perhaps a troubling trend in contemporary life, but one that gets rehashed too often in this book. This isn’t helped by the fact that the troubles the students face are often ripped from sensational headlines and scenarios. Tristan doesn’t just commit suicide: he jumps off the iconic Golden Gate Bridge. Ryan the jock isn’t just lured into a friendship with a creepy adult through Facebook; he takes a bus down to Los Angeles to make gay porn for the guy (despite the fact that Ryan already has plenty of money and has thus far seemed interested only in girls). Because each student only gets one chapter, there’s limited room for background and buildup behind these dramatic endings.
A major challenge for the novel is that the stories are told from the perspective of the students within the community — they’re young and have neither the experience nor an understanding of the bigger world to lend their concerns some perspective. This constraint separates The Most Dangerous Place on Earth from the high-school-set novels it is compared to on its cover — Curtis Sittenfeld’s Prep, which is told from the point of view of a lower-middle-class outsider, and Celeste Ng’s Everything I Never Told You, which includes the perspectives of the parents. The parents in Johnson’s novel, in contrast, are mostly invisible figures without much wisdom or direction to impart to their offspring. The one adult we do follow, the young Miss Nicoll, is as immature as the kids. Too eager to be liked, Miss Nicoll stops assigning homework altogether and ends up getting reprimanded for leaving intrusive messages on her students’ Facebook pages. Her point of view serves mostly to reiterate how ineffectual adults are at reaching the teens they’re tasked with caretaking. Thus the lessons of the stories get hobbled somewhat by the myopic self-centeredness of the students, traumatized equally by beer-ruined carpets and sub-2100 SAT scores as by a fellow student’s suicide, blithely unaware of the poverty, violence, and neglect that exist for people outside their isolated community.
Of course, it’s the rare adolescent who isn’t consumed wholesale by the concerns of high school life. Johnson’s novel portrays the self-involved world of teenagers very well, revealing just how buffered the wealthy are from the consequences of the mistakes they make. Despite parental neglect, when push comes to shove, the students do, in fact, have a high level of adult support. When rumors of Abigail and Mr. Ellison’s relationship come to light, the administration addresses it right away in caring terms — and both of Abigail’s parents show up, if distractedly. When Damon gets busted with ecstasy, his father pulls strings to keep Damon out of juvie, sending him to a nice rehab instead, where a caring counselor helps him turn his life around. Hidden under all the teenage angst and drama is the big, wide net of privilege that sits ready to catch these people, even after they make their big mistakes. In the end, the students don’t have the perspective to see just how lucky they are, just how protected they often are by their parents.
The most dangerous place, in fact, seems less the physical space of high school or Mill Valley, but the virtual space of the internet. Johnson’s writing is strongest when it takes on these new forms — texts, social media comment streams, and clickbait “news” articles — illustrating just how disconnected and damaging these tech-fueled ways of communicating can be for young people. Here’s one set of Instagram comments, posted below a party photo of Emma, who is passed-out-drunk:
Damon Flintov: she is so fucked right now
Corie Narlow: who is this sloppy drunk bitch?
Brian DeAngelo: cumbucket
Jeremy McCreigh: some people deserve to get raped
Damon Flintov: u r one sick fuck
Jeremy McCreigh: 🙂
This is an example of how the danger of internet harassment can veer very closely to the dangers of real life. The commenters may or may not follow through on their threat of sexual assault, but their exchange is a testament to how dangerously exposed people can be both on the internet and off. Emma’s mounting shame and anxiety as she reads more and more of these comments captures the mortification of adolescence, multiplied a hundredfold by the proliferating and permanent nature of the internet. Even more disturbing is the fact that these comments are written by the same students whose cyberbullying led to Tristan’s dive off a bridge just a few years before. The students just don’t seem to learn much from their mistakes. What they have learned, however, is that callous shaming and name-calling in a public forum is a completely socially acceptable way to communicate with their peers — while honesty and one-to-one connection are not. This, unfortunately, is what Tristan had failed to learn: his folly was writing a private note in an age where nothing is private. Near the end of the book, one of the cyberbullies thinks back to Tristan’s love note to Cally:
Tristan Bloch, grade eight, had made an open declaration of love — love! — with no euphemism, no qualifiers, no self-protective irony, no restraint, no regard for the laws of modern courtship or middle school […] How was it possible to go through life so blind, so unafraid?
When I wrote my notes in junior high, I didn’t fear any social repercussions, even after a note of mine was stolen and my crush found out I “liked” him. That was embarrassing for a couple days, but the whole thing was quickly forgotten about. What might happen to a note like that today, I’m not sure. There seems to be much less room for social experimentation or emotional risk-taking in the social media era, thanks to the addictive isolation of our tech devices. Although the teens in The Most Dangerous Place on Earth never grow up enough to contend with a world beyond their own lives, the novel effectively highlights the perils of sharing anything personal or meaningful today. Anything you say or do can be uploaded onto Instagram, dissected on Twitter, ridiculed on Facebook — the private has become public in a very different way.