Friday, 2 July 2010

The brain, behaviour and criminal responsibility in Klass' Dark Angel

Set in a small town in contemporary USA, David Klass' Dark Angel is a psychological thriller that explores notions of good and evil; responsibility and victimhood. It's the first YA novel I've read so far for my research that explicitly mentions recent findings in modern neuroscience and weaves these concepts successfully through the narrative.

Seventeen-year-old Jeff's life is pretty ordinary. He does okay at high school, has an attractive girlfriend and is a solid but not impressive soccer player. But all that changes when his older brother Troy is released from prison. Troy was convicted of manslaughter as a juvenile and, after serving five years, is released on parole into the care of his parents. Jeff knows the average, small-town-teen life he has constructed is about to implode but is unable to persuade his parents to cast Troy aside. And despite Troy's carefully constructed remorseful surface, Jeff's worst fears are realised when the high school soccer star goes missing.

The teen-novel standard school assignment plot device is put to good use in Dark Angel, when the science teacher Mr Tsuyuki sets the class the task of writing a report that explores notions of good versus evil:

"Where does our growing knowledge of the chemical nature of the brain leave us in terms of... the human soul? When we think, are we really making choices or just following chemical pathways? If our behaviour can be reduced to chemical reactions, can we hold people to blame for what they do or don't do?" [p74-75]

Throughout the novel, Klass skilfully allows the narrator Jeff to experience the concepts his teacher describes as the story's action unfolds. In doing so, Klass pulls off the difficult double-act of writing a fast-paced thriller with plenty of action that also offers readers plenty to think about. There's an ill-fated trip to Atlantic City, a school prank gone horribly wrong, arguments with mates, a run in with the ex-girlfriend's father and Troy himself, described in all his complex creepiness and vulnerability. Underscoring this action, Klass poses difficult questions about loyalty to family and friends, the impacts of family secrets and the broad grey area that lies between the extremes of good and evil.

In terms of my research purposes, Klass incorporates trauma and its impact on the brain from a neuroscientific perspective:

"There are psychiatrists and neurologists doing studies on violent lawbreakers, from juvenile delinquents to adult murderers, who are finding that these felons share amazingly similar patterns of abusive childhoods, brain injuries, and psychotic symptoms." [p118]

Although it is the character of Mr Tsuyuki who introduces these concepts in a literal sense into the text, the impact of the questions he poses underlie every piece of action and dialogue in the novel. This is what makes it work well on so many levels: Jeff's story is infused with the fallout of his brother and his violent past and present. And yet, in spite of Tsuyuki's proposal that criminals are created not born, there is no indication within the story that Troy had anything but a loving and supportive childhood; no hint of any trauma that could be seen as a 'cause' for his aberrant behaviour.

In posing more questions than it answers, Klass tests those of his readers that want to be challenged. However, his skillful pacing, authentic dialogue and writing about standard teen fare including sex, illicit drug use, jealousy and friendship, means that those who prefer to read books without digging below the surface action will be entertained while being subtly drawn into the book's darker and more serious side.

A great book, and definitely one to add to the thesis shortlist.