Yesterday, I read Susan Juby’s The Truth Commission for the third time. As it won’t be officially released until tomorrow, that may actually be a personal record. What can I say? I love it.
It’s a work of creative nonfiction¹ by Normandy Pale, a student in 11th grade at Green Pastures Academy of Art and Applied Design. In order to satisfy a school requirement, Normandy—“Norm” to her friends—tells the story of the Truth Commission and of the unexpected personal truths it eventually uncovered and revealed, and she uses a plethora of literary devices in order to do it: footnotes, parentheticals, flashbacks, transcription, exposition, cliffhangers, metaphor, created vocabulary à la Frankie Landau-Banks, and deliberate digressions.²
I probably would have loved it purely for the format and Norm’s voice, which are joys unto themselves, but there is so much more.
For years, Norm has lived next to the spotlight—her older sister is an art prodigy and a massively popular comic book creator. And for years, Norm has also lived directly IN the spotlight—said comic book is a thinly veiled fun-house caricature of the Pale household, a place in which any moment of uncertainty, of embarrassment, of weakness, is exaggerated and lampooned and handed to the rest of the world for dissection and debate. Heroines—especially YA heroines—get a lot of flak for not being active-enough agents of change in their own lives. Normandy Pale made me reevaluate my assumptions, my prejudices, my attitude about passivity. BONUS: Juby does the same thing with love triangles.
While it’s a dark story—it has some truly heartbreaking elements—it FEELS light, in good part because of the humor. The dialogue makes me laugh out loud, as does the way Norm describes people and their interactions. And then there are her one-liners:
Constance was one of those people who don’t mind doing most of the work in a relationship. If I ever get married, I hope my first husband is like Constance.
Through Norm, Juby shows us the truth of our world and the people in it (the way people really do look and really do act), as well as the truth that underlies that truth (the reasons that people look and act the way that they do). She satirizes art school and cultural appropriation and performance art and celebrity culture, but she does it with love. Not condescending, smirking love, but actual, true, warm, open affection. And so it’s funny, but it’s not mean.
For me, my love for this book goes beyond the fun and the funny and the adorable and the sad; beyond the excellence of the family story and the friendship story and the sweetness of the romance and the quiet strength of Norm’s relationship with Ms. Fowler. It goes beyond the myriad of ways in which Norm and her friends change the lives of those they touch; beyond the huge cast of entirely three-dimensional characters; beyond the ruminations about the nature of truth and about gossip, about our feelings of entitlement toward other peoples’ private truths, about how asking a question can be a kindness, but sometimes, so can keeping your mouth shut. For me, at its core, the Big Truth of The Truth Commission is this: you get a whole lot more out of life when you set the ironic detachment aside, and start treating other people—and the world in general—with honesty, empathy, sensitivity, and love.
At least, that was MY Truth. Yours might be entirely different.
1. Well, actually, if we want to be accurate—and TRUTHFUL—it’s a work of fictional creative nonfiction by Susan Juby writing as Normandy Pale…you get my drift.
2. And then, in the footnotes, she points said usage out to her teacher, Ms. Fowler. The ongoing—and unrepentant—grade-grubbing is hilarious, but as she also uses the space to play Cupid between Ms. Fowler and another teacher, the footnotes end up being just as moving as the larger body of Norm’s work.
If she isn't writing Bookshelves of Doom or running the show at her local library, Leila Roy might be making stuff for her Etsy shop while rewatching Veronica Mars, Buffy the Vampire Slayer, Babylon 5, Black Books or Twin Peaks. Well, that or she’s hanging out on Twitter. Or both.