Elliot Allagash by Simon Rich

Elliot Allagash by Simon Rich 2010

The other day, I got on the train, happily anticipating 3.5 hours of journey in an Espace Calme carriage to finish Distant Star and start The Age of Innocence. Well I had my head in the stars and was far too innocent to imagine that paying an excess fare would guarantee silence. Behind me, a couple with a baby who had hardly been there for five minutes before changing wet diapers and feeding him. Ahead of me: four guys well decided to voice loudly their opinion about the comparative merits of Iphones and Android phones. On the side, a girl who visibly couldn’t understand the picture of a cell-phone going to sleep although stickers were plastered in the whole carriage. I sighed, put the Bolaño aside and blessed the kindle for not letting me short of reading alternatives. This how I decided to read Elliot Allagash that I’d previously downloaded after reading Litlove’s charming review.

Elliot Allagash probably fits into the YA category as it is about teenagers in a high school, which brings the images of insipid teen movies. But it’s more than that.

Seymour is an only child living with two nice and caring parents. They play Monopoly together every week, always have their evening meals together and the parents are a happy couple. So no family problem in sight for Seymour. He’s a freshman at Glendale’s Academy, New York. It sounds furiously funny for a French as glander means to loaf about, so this school sounds like a joke in itself. Chubby, clumsy and not-very-smart Seymour is bullied by other students. He sits alone at lunch and doesn’t have any friends, until Elliot Allagash joins Glendale Academy after his father settles in NY. And that’s where the book turns away from the mawkish-silly path of teenage book to dark fun. Because Elliot is rich, bored and blasé, he decides to give Seymour everything he wants provided that Seymour gives him his freedom of mind and obeys him in any way. And what does Seymour want? The whole package of the American high school boy: popularity, a membership in the basketball team, the hottest girl in the school and excellent grades without being a nerd. All in that order. He’s ready to give his freedom against it and Elliot is willing to have fun changing his beast into to a beau.

Elliot takes Seymour as a scientific experiment and implements all kind of schemes to achieve his goals. Elliot is rich and can afford any kind of twisted means to con people and make of Seymour the person he wants to be. Simon Rich avoids the pitfall of political correctness and goes against American mythology. Seymour isn’t going to turn into a beautiful swan thanks to hard work, prayers and honesty. Elliot buys everything he needs, conjures up good feelings and gives the adults what they want to see. He cheats on tests – easily done when they’re MCQ and not essays, creates fake charities and advertises for them posing Seymour as a disinterested benefactor. The biggest the lie, the better it works. He manipulates other people’s pride and presses all the right buttons to mold Seymour into what America expects from a model student.

Elliot has his own issues, his father Terry is like him and there’s a sort of competition between the two. Terry takes pleasure in exposing to Seymour his best stunts. Elliot lives in a fantasy house and Seymour lives in a vernacular house in comparison. The atmosphere of the book is that of comics like Superman where the shy guy becomes a superhero thanks to magic. At the same time it’s a ferocious criticism of high schools, adults’ expectations and criteria used by universities to select students.

I know it won’t suit everyone but I still found it funny and entertaining. And it leaves me with the same question about American high schools: is it really like that? I mean the dumb dances where you need a date, the cheerleading squads and the guarded territories at lunch? It seems more like a long social event than a place to actually learn something. But I’m sure that students get more from it than what we see from this side of the Atlantic.

PS: The first cover is the American edition and it suits the atmosphere of the book. The second one is the UK edition and Simon Rich should complain about it, his book seems silly.

  1. August 22, 2012 at 3:05 am

    I’m afraid I can’t answer your questions about American high school as an attendee, but as an observer, it’s an institution that seems awful. Glad I never had to go, but I did work in one. One of the things I’ve noted is the number of dances organised which require fancy formal dress. The yearbooks are very pricey too.

    Like

    • August 22, 2012 at 9:13 pm

      I would have hated the meringue dresses and the social codes around all these events.

      Like

  2. August 22, 2012 at 10:04 am

    Seen from outside these American high schools look so strange. I would have suffered big time.
    I’m sure it’s a very entertaining book and I wouldn’t mind reading it. Those covers are so different. I’m surprsied the UK edition looks more American. Reinforcing the cliché I suppose.

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    • August 22, 2012 at 9:18 pm

      I would have been miserable too, I’m sure.
      I was surprised at the UK cover too but I think you’re right, it hopes to attract readers with a cliche but it’s neither good for the book (it will put off potential readers) nor for the readers deluded into thinking they’ll read a written American Pie.

      Like

  3. Brian Joseph
    August 23, 2012 at 12:55 pm

    This sounds like a book about young people that was a cut above the rest!

    I attended American High School. I must say that I have been told by people who attended as well as those who did not attend my school that I went to an unusual place. We had a higher population of students who were different and off beat. The typical popular groups such as football players were not so popular. “School Spirit” was not strong. Though there were minor stains of it, my high school was not as described above.

    With that said I believe that many American schools are like that.

    Like

    • August 23, 2012 at 10:54 pm

      That’s what I thought: what we see here are mostly cliches. Is it really important to get involved in school activities that aren’t academic ones?

      Like

      • Brian Joseph
        August 24, 2012 at 11:35 am

        I was a bit of an odd teenager plus as I mentioned my school was a little different. I was involved in almost nothing. The same was true of some of my friends. I felt no pressure. I graduated back in 1985 however. I have heard that there is a lot pressure to participate these days.

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        • August 24, 2012 at 3:00 pm

          In my lycee, there weren’t any extracurricular activities, except sport but it’s nothing like American high school sport. You don’t get scholarships on sport results. (Most students don’t need scholarships, tuition is very low)

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  4. August 23, 2012 at 5:40 pm

    American High Schools look grim, but then I found school pretty grim in the UK. I’m sure some people have a hugely fun time.

    Your anecdote on how you came to read this is precisely why I always carry an iphone with music on it and headphones.

    Like

    • August 23, 2012 at 11:00 pm

      I can’t tell that my lycee years were my best; Business School was a lot more fun. But I’m glad I didn’t have to attend social events or take part into school activities to polish my resume for university as it seems to work in the American system. I’m not saying it’s a bad one, just that it would have been a difficult one for someone as shy as I was/am.

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      • August 24, 2012 at 11:38 am

        The extracurricular thing is an issue in the UK. When I was leaving school I found I had problems competitively because my school did very little of that sort of thing while others had a string of “achievements” to list. The fact I was a communist with a fondness for punk (and definitely wasn’t a “joiner”) probably didn’t help either though,I admit.

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        • August 24, 2012 at 3:06 pm

          In France only grades matter when you want to get in famous universities, I think. But I don’t really know since I didn’t go to uni. We have another elitist system, the Grandes Ecoles, you go to prep school, take exams and the students with the best grades at the exams get in.

          Like

  5. August 25, 2012 at 10:45 am

    I am so glad you enjoyed this! I liked the Machiavellian way that Elliot fixed things up for Seymour, those parts of the plot were always clever and amusing. And I was relieved that Seymour had nice parents – it felt like a saving grace. There were several ways, in fact that Simon Rich avoided the situational cliches of a lot of coming-of-age/ high-school novels. I’m really sorry about the noisy carriage, though. That can be infuriating!

    Like

    • August 25, 2012 at 9:32 pm

      Thanks for the review, I hadn’t heard from it before. It was entertaining and yet thought provoking. A nice mix.
      I usually don’t complain about noisy carriages, it’s part of the trip. But here, I had paid for the Espace Calme and I was looking forward to these uninterrupted hours of reading. I don’t have so many of those.

      Like

  1. September 11, 2012 at 10:40 pm

I love to hear your thoughts, thanks for commenting. Comments in French are welcome

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