Monday, December 1, 2014

Confessions of a "Wanna-be" Tough Guy

I first read Diary of a Wimpy Kid while sitting in a dentist’s chair. . .they were slow that day. The dental hygienists heard me laughing and I had to excuse myself once or twice, though I also remember moments of discomfort, during which I felt disappointed in Greg’s behavior. In order to understand a deceptively simple book like Diary of a Wimpy Kid, it is useful to look at the structure and techniques that Kinney uses. Let us first address the cartoons and their function.

Early on, Greg tells us about Bryce, the most popular boy in the grade. “The thing that really stinks is that I have ALWAYS been into girls, but kids like Bryce have only come around in the last couple of years. I remember how Bryce used to act back in elementary school” (6). We then view a cartoon, in which Bryce says, “Girls are stinky poos!” and Greg says, “I don’t think girls are stinky poos,” but the girls are facing Bryce (7). This cartoon is humorous, and for more than just the use of the term “stinky poos” as an insult. The detail in which the girls face Bryce illustrates Greg as an almost-invisible fellow, and we see how he observes himself in relation to others. Greg’s journal might don a new name, such as “Confessions of the Not-Quite Popular,” or “Confessions of a Jaded Nice-Guy.” Throughout the novel, the pictures underscore the “buttons” of the jokes set up in the writing, and intensify the humor implicit in the plot.

The more endearing parts of the book are his stresses and his musings. One particular stressor with which Greg deals is the “Cheese Touch.” He tells us about a piece of cheese that has been sitting on the basketball court since the prior spring. Upon its arrival, it began to get moldy and no one would play on that court. A student, Darren, touched the Cheese and got the first “Cheese Touch.” Because it is like “cooties,” it is a very serious matter for elementary school students. This worry is relatable, and a classic case of “Funny Because it is Truthful.” Think about it. Middle school involves arguably the worst years of one’s schooling career. Kids go through puberty, and at different rates, and hormones do all sorts of new things. There is a “popular crowd” moreso than ever before, and those who are not in this crowd must forge their own paths. Therefore, of course the rules surrounding the Cheese Touch must be taken very seriously. Here, I applaud Kinney for his commitment to truth and trusting it to be funny. This is a classic example of Relief/Release Theory, as many readers will have had similar stressors in middle school, have children currently in middle school, or can relate to comparable forms of stress (perhaps more “adult”) in their own lives.

The darker side of the novel involves his—more controversial, as some blog posts have noted—deception tactics. His deception does not discriminate, for he deceives everyone from his baby brother to Rowley’s dad. Greg makes some choices throughout the novel that are downright mean, and he is not as lovable a protagonist as we might hope. Some readers may not think that he is lovable at all.

However, I appreciate Kinney’s continuity with the “Cheese Touch,” as it comes back to show some growth in Greg’s character later in the novel. When the older kids mess with Rowley and Greg, they try to force them to eat the cheese. Greg says that he is allergic to milk, but the boys force Rowley to eat the cheese. Humor is all over this scene, as Greg again reminds us of the gravity of the Cheese Touch. He notes that “if Rowley ever tries to run for President and someone finds out what these guys made him do, he won’t have a chance,” and underscores his own somber tone by telling us that the boys made Rowley “__ __ __ the Cheese,” refusing to write out the word, “eat” (210). The seriousness of younger people always makes older people laugh, so we along with the parents, might laugh heartily at this. Yet children Greg’s age might understand the gravity of the situation. Ultimately, Greg protects Rowley by telling the other kids that he disposed of the cheese, and thereby relinquishes any steps forward in popularity that he has taken in order to help someone else. Finally we see a moment in which kindness triumphs over the quest for popularity and all of its accompanying schemes.

A slightly subtler device that Kinney uses in writing the book is that of giving somewhat more mature terminology and worries to a young boy. For example, Greg talks about sitting near “hot girls,” and many of his hopes for popularity revolve around women. What happens when we mix teenage worries with childish tactics (and vice versa) in a boy between the two ages? Does it make the worries and tactics funnier? Less funny? Does it force us to evaluate them differently? It frustrates some of us. Some might say that it is “not cute anymore,” while still others may say “it was never cute.” Yet Greg’s revelation of character when he protects Rowley at the end keep the book in a lighter state, and we can view him as a “wanna-be” tough guy with a soft spot here and there. This is amusing, and serves as relief in itself, so we the reader can laugh, even though Greg has taken steps backward on his quest to reach his central goal (popularity).

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