Something Completely Different: Bumped by Megan McCafferty

Bumped cover When a virus makes everyone over the age of eighteen infertile, would-be parents pay teen girls to conceive and give birth to their children, making teens the most prized members of society. Girls sport fake baby bumps and the school cafeteria stocks folic-acid-infused food.

Sixteen-year-old identical twins Melody and Harmony were separated at birth and have never met until the day Harmony shows up on Melody’s doorstep. Up to now, the twins have followed completely opposite paths. Melody has scored an enviable conception contract with a couple called the Jaydens. While they are searching for the perfect partner for Melody to bump with, she is fighting her attraction to her best friend, Zen, who is way too short for the job.

Harmony has spent her whole life in Goodside, a religious community, preparing to be a wife and mother. She believes her calling is to convince Melody that pregging for profit is a sin. But Harmony has secrets of her own that she is running from.

When Melody is finally matched with the world-famous, genetically flawless Jondoe, both girls’ lives are changed forever. A case of mistaken identity takes them on a journey neither could have ever imagined, one that makes Melody and Harmony realize they have so much more than just DNA in common.
You know, when you crack open a new dystopian novel, you generally expect a somber, dramatic tone, and a story involving an epic struggle – to survive, or escape, or even overthrow the establishment. You expect a book filled with wastelands and oppression and suffering, because it is, after all, dystopian, and this is a genre characterized by human misery. So when I heard that Bumped was “dystopian”, this is what I was expecting. It is so not what I got.

I’m not even sure we can categorize Bumped as dystopian, at least not wholly; it’s waaay too perky like that. This book hits you like a sunny southern cheerleader on a sugar rush, smiling and laughing and enjoying life while you’re wondering what happened to the cynical rebel kid that was supposed to meet you here. But that makes sense, because what I didn’t realize until halfway through Bumped was that I’d been missing half its genre description: satire.

Now, okay, Bumped isn’t exactly the subtle, cutting, subversively insightful satire you tend to expect, but rather the broad, cartoonish-yet-still-relevant kind. Bumped‘s sex-saturated, pro-teen-pregnancy world is exaggerated to an absurd, comical degree, but still manages to ring unexpectedly true.

As the summary explains, Bumped takes place in a world in which people over the age of eighteen become infertile due to some virus (not sure how that works, I mean, how can viruses be age-triggered?), so to avoid mass extinction, society, government, and the consumer market have decided that teenagers must bear the responsibility for keeping the nation’s birthrates up.

From the moment they go through puberty, children and teenagers are encouraged by the media, corporations, government, and their peers, to become pregnant. We frequently hear characters singing along to popular songs about how wonderful it is to be pregnant, not to mention jingles celebrating “fetiliciousness”, and characters are constantly assaulted by ads for everything from fake bellies that make the wearers feel pregnant to Tocin, a super-aphrodisiac. Condoms are illegal, and girls who are not/haven’t been pregnant by the age of seventeen are looked down upon, as “virgins on the verge” of infertility. It’s noticeably absent, but I can only imagine how taboo teenage homosexuality must be.

The problem here is that the teenagers have no real sense of choice in the matter. Children are expected of them, but they are not allowed to keep them; pregnant mothers are given doses of “anti-Tocin” so that they don’t connect with the child while pregnant, and are not allowed to see the infants afterward. And again, condoms are outlawed, so “making love” or having sex simply for the fun of it is “wrong” for teenagers still in their “breeding” years.

On the opposite side of the spectrum lie the Church folk, who believe that having children outside of wedlock, or for money (the way the teenagers in this society do) is wrong. They believe that women and mens’ bodies belong only to their husband or wife, and that the act of having sex is not for fun, but to procreate. As such, they marry off their children at a young age – starting at thirteen – regardless of the child’s feelings on the matter.

Both sides are wrong – obviously – in opposing but essentially similar ways. They both limit the control and restrict the choices these teenagers have over their own reproductive organs and bodies: one by demonizing the act, the other by commercializing it.

As far as McCafferty takes the ways in which culture manipulates these teenagers, the concept is not unbelievable. The religious attitude described in Bumped is pretty much identical to religious attitudes nowadays, and while we haven’t gone so far as to actively glorify the actual teenage pregnancy experience, I don’t have a doubt that our culture could easily shift that way if it became necessary. It’s scarily possible, especially when you think about the way baby dolls came into fashion.

To quote this article, featuring information from Peggy Orenstein’s Cinderella Ate my Daughter (which we reviewed a few months ago): “Concerned about declining birth rates among white Anglo-Saxon women, [Theodore Roosevelt] started a campaign against “race suicide,” encouraging white middle-class women to have more than one child. Orenstein writes, “Baby dolls were seen as a way to revive the flagging maternal instinct of white girls, to remind them of their patriotic duty to conceive; within a few years dolls were ubiquitous, synonymous with girlhood itself.”

So yeah, not only is the future described in Bumped totally plausible, but it’s pretty much already happened. Nice.

Unfortunately, Bumped‘s interesting satirical take is damped somewhat by its unabashed joy in being shallow. This is undoubtedly the source of its greatest flaws as a book, because while McCafferty goes all out to demonstrate the absurdities of both a society such as this and its inhabitants, Bumped doesn’t go far enough in creating a story or characters that can stand outside their satirical context.

The biggest – and most obvious – problem I think everyone will have with Bumped is the way we’re just dropped in to the story, amid a deluge of “futuristic” terminology, and worse, futuristic teenage slang. In the first few pages, our heroine Melody talks about “bumping”, ponders the concept of being “fertilicious”, whines about her “godfreaky” twin sister, talks to her “everythingbut” best friend Zen, who has “insufficient verticality” to ever “bump professionally”, goes on about “MasSEX” parties full of teenagers high on “Tocin”, and spends a great deal of time on her MiNet account doing various MiRelated things. For seriously.

There’s more than that, so much so that for the first perhaps five or even six chapters, it was difficult to understand what was going on and what was being said, until the heroine – and author – got over their desire to drop us into an unfamiliar land without a translator, and began to explain a little.

This isn’t usually a technique I’m opposed to. I’d much rather feel lost and gather what I can, little by little, than be subjected to pages of exposition. And I don’t even really oppose it in this context. What I do oppose is the way the terminology and slang make the book sound so shallow. It’s hard to call McCafferty on this, because, after all, Bumped is satirical, and the whole point is that the teenagers’ made-up words are stupid. They’re supposed to be. Teen-speak is dumb now, it was dumb in the past, and it will be dumb in the future. But I think McCafferty does this a little too well. Instead of laughing at the absurdity of a heroine dead seriously spouting off words that sound like a Futurama joke (GUH!), I rolled my eyes and got irritated.

McCafferty does her job a little too well across the board – I’m all for biting social commentary, but Bumped bashes you over the head with its message from page one and doesn’t stop, not even long enough to give its characters that spark of life and substance beyond what the story requires from them.

I never once believed Melody and Harmony as characters. Like their names, Harmony and Melody’s roles and character arcs were too perfect, too pre-planned, and their troubles too…topical for me to relate to them in any meaningful way. They are tools more than they are characters, and their feelings, conflicts, and choices are only there so that the author can make her point. They never rise above the satirical structure, and their personalities never work well enough to make the plot developments feel more natural, rather than simply necessary to pull the story along in its designed course.

I can’t really say they don’t develop, because the plot dictates that they must. After all, their respective societies are flawed, and they have to realize this to rebel against them. But the developments never feel natural. When Melody finally awakens to the realization that perhaps a government encouraging teenagers to go out and have unprotected sex because it’s expected of them is bad, it doesn’t feel like she came to this conclusion of her own volition. It felt like we reached the point in the story where she had to.

The same goes with Harmony, although I thought she skewed down the out-of-character road long before Melody. Harmony is the “godfreaky” sister, raised in “Goodside”, where the Amish/Mormon Generic Christian population lives. Harmony leaves Goodside to visit – and ostensibly convert – her sister, but in truth she’s looking for a place in which she might “fit in”, because she thinks too much to be Christian. She hopes Melody’s company might provide the fit she’s looking for, but they fail to connect, so instead, she finds…Jondoe.

And that was right around the time I stopped believing either of these plot devices masquerading as “heroines” were characters. Because this was when the “godfreaky”, hyper-religious Harmony lies and takes her sister’s place in order to meet a professional sperm donor that Melody is intended to conceive a child with. She rationalizes it to herself as a chance to pull of the ultimate conversion, but you never believe that. No, what really happens is that she finds Jondoe so pretty that she instantly opts to abandon the faith she was born and raised with so that she can fuck him.

It’s not that I’m opposed to this plan in principle, nor am I offended by the fact that her faith is supposed to be wrong, because, well, in this respect it is. What I’m offended by – and what I find impossible to believe – is that Harmony just lets this faith she’s been clinging to tooth and nail, despite her misgivings, go. For a guy. Sure, she’s been having doubts, but really? One look at his picture and she’s like “FUCK RELIGION, I WANNA FUCK.” She doesn’t even meet the guy before she’s stealing her sister’s identity to bump with him, and after she does, I’m not gonna lie, the dude’s an arrogant prick. I’m not sure if we’re supposed to actually like him, but Harmony falls for him in no time. It’s absurd, completely out of character, and irritating as Hell. It’s always about the fucking dick!

Harmony’s arc just goes on a downhill ride through random-and-convenient town from there, and McCafferty never even bothers to offer any explanation for the series of fortunate coincidences that move it along. It turns out Jondoe is a Christian, too, but his parents are the more flexible kind, seeing their son’s virility and ability to produce desirable children as a divine mission, of sorts. And Jondoe just happens to fall in love with Harmony’s innocence and “godfreakiness” (because, you know, it’s different, and in books and movies men find “different” girls attractive), becoming so taken with her that he takes her home to meet the folks and immediately cares for her enough to want to give up his life of international fame and fortune so that they can be together. After one night.

But Harmony conveniently hears him “conning” Melody’s agent into thinking he just bumped Harmony for the money, and runs away, somehow instinctively knowing that after ONE NIGHT of having sex, she is pregnant with his child. Then she runs into her sister, who, according to the needs of the plot, has decided that she’s not angry that Harmony has just ruined everything she’s been working for, and sincerely tells her sister this, allowing them a moment of bonding. That is, until Harmony gets home and decides that Melody was just, IDK, lying for no reason and actually hates her, deciding that for the sake of a cliffhanger ending, she must return with her unborn child to the ultra-conservative religious life she had, not twenty-four-hours earlier, decided wasn’t for her.

Oh, yeah, and somehow Jondoe looks just like Jesus has always looked in her dreams. That’s not creepy or anything.

Seriously, this is lazy plotting under the best of circumstances, when the authors try desperately to fill in the plot holes so that it makes some kind of sense beyond a massive string of coincidences. And even though it almost never works, at least they tried. McCafferty doesn’t even make an attempt to justify any of this here, it just happens because the plot says so.

Bumped also suffers somewhat from Trilogy Syndrome – we spend most of the book progressing through the character arcs necessary to bring our protagonists around to the reader’s way of thinking – which is to say, understanding the faults of the society – and getting them to a point at which they have reason to fight the system. As a result, there’s not a whole Hell of a lot of action, the conflicts are left unresolved, and the ending is very unfulfilling. This could easily have been a stand-alone book, and might have been better for it, but I expect instead of focusing on the struggles of two individuals to live lives contrary to their respective cultures, we’re going to go for a “social upheaval” trilogy, so yeah. We’ll see how that turns out.

On the upside, I don’t think I’ve ever met a “nice” character who still managed to have as much personality as Melody’s best friend – and eventual love interest – Zen did. I found myself liking him at least ten times more than any of the other characters.

I also liked the fact that the book’s overall message was actually pro-sex. I liked that Harmony’s first sexual experience was not immediately followed by regret (as counter-intuitive as that may be). I liked that by the end, Melody had made the decision to have safe, protected sex with Zen because she cared about him, and not because the child she might get pregnant with could earn her money. These are both good things, and other, pro-chastity teenage series could learn a thing or two from them.

All in all, I think McCafferty had both an interesting idea and a lot to say about it with Bumped. Unfortunately the storytelling aspect of the book suffers for it, and its position as a series starter make for an incomplete reading experience. Still, for all the stupid character decisions and bad slang, I’m still curious to see where this one goes, and not gonna lie, I liked the direction that it was going in. It’s got a good heart, even if it’s a bit loud about it.

three stars


 

7 Responses

  1. Kayla + Cyna

    August 17, 2011 10:01 pm, Reply

    lol it’s Jondoe, thank you very much. And nah, it’s more like an ironic play on the “anonymous sperm donor” thing, since he’s super-famous and everyone wants him for his gorgeous genetic material. His “branding”, as they explain it.

    Nah, I don’t think there even is a resistance yet, lol.

  2. LupLun

    August 18, 2011 12:35 am, Reply

    It’s dystopia. There’s always a resistance. ^_^ Otherwise you don’t have a dystopia, you have Holden Caulfield on steroids.

    -LupLun

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