In Greek philosophy, a gadfly was someone who, like Socrates, spurred people to action by relentless questioning. It is therefore an apt metaphor for an aspiring young journalist sent to a boarding school where the school’s reputation directs student publications. Jennifer Miller’s Year of the Gadfly lacks subtlety; it is Dead Poets Society within the shadowy world of The Skulls, and while the novel doesn’t always manage the delicate balance between drama and melodrama, it does hammer its point home.
Fourteen year old Iris Dupont is a journalist Rachel Berry, whose only friend is the imagined ghost of American journalist Edward R. Murrow. She stumbles upon an exciting scoop – the Prisom’s Party, a secret society in her boarding school recently revived to cause mischief in the name of standing up for the school’s founding principles. She also has an inspiring biology teacher, Jonah Kaplan, a former student of the school who, like Robin Williams in Dead Poets Society, is determined to break his students out of the mould. He demands they become extremophiles, bacteria who survived difficult conditions to eventually evolve into more complex life forms. His words spark a fire in Iris, and unlike her hesitant classmates, she immediately declares that she wants to be an extremophile.
The novel’s lack of subtlety is its major problem. For example, in case we miss the similarity, Miller has two of the characters watch Dead Poets Society on video, and one of them comments that it’s a boarding school movie that based on the atmosphere in the opening scenes, looks like it won’t end well. That’s not intertextuality, that’s hammering a point home.
A similar intensity is in the characters’ storytelling. Like the titular gadfly, they prod relentlessly, except in this case, the reader had gotten the point long ago, and the rest of the prodding merely becomes annoying. The story focuses on Iris’ ambition, Jonah’s dealing with an unnamed incident from the past, and Lily, an albino girl who dated Jonah’s brother while at school. A major theme throughout the novel is cruelty — the cruelty that teens can inflict upon one another, and the need to bring such incidents to light rather than hide them beneath a veneer of respectability. The problem is, even the characters we seem to be meant to cheer for cross the line, and while we don’t require them to be likeable, we at least expect them to be reasonable.
It takes a while to warm up to Iris — her earnestness teeters on the brink of preciousness, and her intellectualism tips right over into pretentiousness. That being said, her every action is infused with loneliness, and even when she snootily chides her mother for using a cliche, we can’t help but feel sorry for her need to find her place in the world. We also get glimpses of a friendship she used to have, and how its tragic end had a much deeper impact on Iris than perhaps she or even her parents can handle. She is also drawn strongly to Jonah, viewing him as a mentor and a potential friend, and when this bond is later jeopardized by her work on Prisom’s Party, we see how much this tears her apart, and we feel for her.
Jonah is, on one hand, the type of teacher we all wish we had — openly disdainful of the rules, and passionate about taking his students beyond the curriculum. There’s a touch of cruelty in him though that makes him much less a mentor figure than Robin Williams’ character. In an effort to push the boundaries and force his students to truly consider what being an extremophile means, he conducts a test that, while I see its purpose, is an extremely cruel thing to do to fourteen year old children. Not only will this get him fired in the real world, but his coldness in executing it compounds the horror of what he has inflicted. Perhaps this is just because Miller chooses to delve so deeply into Jonah’s life outside of teaching, but he seems to lack the passion for his students that had made Robin Williams’ character so effective. Rather, Jonah seems passionate about being right himself and about giving the finger to his alma mater. In this way, he shares Iris’ desire to carve his mark on the world, yet for a grown man, he still seems very much a sullen child.
The biggest problem, perhaps, is Prisom’s Party. Because the school is so desperate to gloss over their activities, it feels that we are meant to cheer on their revolution. Yet, similar to Jonah, they push things too far, and sometimes to little purpose other than making people take notice. In one scene for example, they convince an entire cafeteria to turn on one of the students, who hadn’t done anything wrong. As Iris noticed, some of the students didn’t even know why they were joining in, nor did they notice the student cowering in the centre. Prisom’s Party later explained that this was a test against mindless obedience, which indeed is an important subject, but victimizing a student simply to make a point crosses the line.
Iris, Jonah and Prisom’s Party are all puffed up with a feeling of self-importance, arguing that fighting for their principles justifies hurting other people. This isn’t quite as black and white in the book, of course, and Iris in particular, is all too aware of being in over her head at times. Still, the delivery is ham-fisted and relentlessly intense, such that even the ultimately tragic chapters on Lily almost feel like a welcome relief.
Year of the Gadfly could have used more subtlety and a lot more light-heartedness, but overall, it is an entertaining book, particularly for aspiring journalists or fans of the boarding school novel.
Thank you to Thomas Allen Ltd for an advance reading copy of this in exchange for an honest review.