America's Report Card: A Novel
reviewed by David Lee Carlson - March 01, 2007
Every spring, my twelve-year old niece frets about taking the Florida State standardized exam, better known as the FCAT. In fact, now that shes preparing to enter high school next year, the conversation at the dinner table centers around how she needs to buckle down in order to pass the high school FCAT, which she needs to do in order to receive a high school diploma in Florida. From the states position (ostensibly), it is important to know that public school students exit secondary school with a certain body of knowledge and a certain arsenal of skills, such as the ability to read fiction and non-fiction texts, compose an essay, and solve mathematical problems. From my nieces perspective, exams cause undue anxiety. Since shes been taking these tests, rarely have they accurately described her abilities. In fact, one year, the FCAT reported that she possessed stronger reading skills than mathematical ones while her grades and personal interest contest that view. She has traditionally done better in math and science than she does in history and English Language Arts.
Generalizing about one specific example is dubious. Yet, the history of grading and assessing student work is replete with contradictory conclusions. The field of Secondary English studies hasnt really recovered from Starch and Elliots study in 1912 (Kirschenbaum et al., 1971) illustrating the great disparity among essay scores given by secondary teachers of English, and recent scholarship documents the racist motivations of early intelligence testing, all indicating that a bubble sheet can be about as reliable as a skulls circumference. Thus, in the quest for knowing, the ability of standardized tests to reflect the known may not be reliable. It is the blurry lines between the known and the unknown that drives John McNallys latest novel Americas Report Card.
The history of education in the United States reveals a direct link between a perceived educational crisis and an increase in testing. It, thus, makes sense for McNally to begin his novel with a hyperbolic description of the test-taking anxieties of Jainey OSullivan, who as a third-grader is told that if she doesnt do well on her exam, the Russians will take over, and if not the Russians, then the Chinese (p. 3). And, towards the end of the test, she realizes that her answers were one-off on the answer sheet, and that her life as shes known it is coming to an end and that it was her fault. McNally captures the role that standardized tests play in American culture in a matter of three pages. Rigid test administrators arrive at the school with briefcases and boxes to give directions to young students, who dutifully read the passages, answer multiple-choice tests, and compute the mathematical equations. As students take the test, they struggle to contain their anxieties and become confused as to where to place the correct answer on the answer sheet. In the end, the results of the test are about blame and praise; if the student performed well, the school, the parents, and the teachers receive the praise; if not, the student gets the blame, or at least in Jaineys situation that is the case.
The theme that structures this novel is the transformation of the lycanthrope, or the person who changes from a human to a monster. The characters in this novel struggle to come to terms with how quickly people can change, and to make sense out of shifting, even unsettling attributes of people with whom we are closest. Jainey OSullivan, a young teenager preparing to graduate from high school, and whose life is splitting at the seams, (p. 9) is more concerned about her changing body, and pubescent desires than she is about the national test thats fast approaching entitled Americas Report Card. Like most seniors in high school, she asserts that her classmates are less concerned about the exam than her teachers. This being the case, McNally focuses very little on the actual test, but spends most of his time providing the reader with a close-up view of Jaineys world. She drives her brothers car to school, shes an artist who creates the cartoon, Lloyd the Freakazoid, and she adores her grade school art teacher, Mrs. Grant, who encouraged her to be an artist. Jainey contends that there are two versions of every person: theres the cartoon version, and the real version, and, of course, the cartoon version is more interesting (p. 11). It is easy to see that Jaineys voice represents McNallys own perspective on American culture today; specifically his strong commentary on the political climate in the United States at this current time, where truth and reality are determined by the most astute wordsmiths, where muddling the facts neutralizes poor and unpopular decisions.
Jaineys life changes when she learns of Mrs. Grants death. In her disbelief, she hypothesizes that the government carried it out because of her (Grants) political views, specifically her life-like George Bush figure that morphs into Osama Bin Laden; implying that they are one in the same. Although possible, even though evidence suggests that Mrs. Grant committed suicide, Jainey holds onto the belief that the government was spying on her and had slain Mrs. Grant. In response to her death, Jainey gives an unusual, yet heartfelt response to the essay question on her standardized test, demonstrating her precociousness. From this moment on, the rest of the book describes Jaineys adventures in Chicago, where she meets a sales-lady of wigs, Mariah, and where she eventually meets up with Charles Wolf, who has just graduated with a Masters degree in Film Studies, and becomes enamored of Jaineys voice in her essay.
Charles Wolf decides to remain in Iowa City, Iowa after completing his Masters degree in Film Studies. He lives with his girlfriend, Petra Petrovich, who, according to Charles, looks like she just stepped from the pages of a thick Signet-edition classic (p. 8), and doesnt have any plans either. After attending a job fair that resembled a soup kitchen, and since there wasnt a single practical use for anything hed done, he and Petra decide to go to work for the National Testing Service, which scores all of the Americas Report Card tests. Charles reasons that they could continue spending lazy afternoons on the couch watching B movies (p. 7). This poorly reasoned decision produced a drastic change in his life.
Charles life changes when Petra leaves him for a doctor in Chicago, he gains weight, and writes a fictional story about her lover. After reading Jaineys essay, he gets transferred to the warehouses in Chicago to try to find her. Charles writes down her address, and later goes to her house. One day on his way to work, Jaineys car breaks down, and Charlie finally gets the chance to meet her. The rest of the novel follows their efforts to make sense out of the hall of mirrors that has become their lives. In short, to reconcile contradictory, hypocritical, even ironic positions.
What makes this novel so successful is the same thing that makes it tragic, and even torturous to read; namely its grip on reality is so stark, so precise, that after a while it refuses to read like a piece of fiction, and instead resembles the Fox News Network, where truth and accuracy remain at the mercy of the most clever rhetorician, and where creative individuals ironically find intimacy in the storage facility of a highly bureaucratized data storage vault. If this novel reflects todays America, then we are indeed living in the land of confusion. It seems appropriate that McNally dedicated this book to the modern Iago, Anne Coulter, a cartoon character who makes the most inappropriate comments at the most inappropriate times (See Jersey Girls comments during recent interview with Matt Lauer.). He further demonstrates that one can possess the right profile, even be a cheerleader in college, yet be predisposed to commit genocide. What this means is that information not part of a profile, excluded from standardized exams can have dramatic and drastic practical consequences. The reader understands this point by the end of the novel.
The story that McNally tells, however, is not about standardized testing, but he makes epistemological claims about telling and knowing the truth, and the difficulties of distinguishing between who is telling the truth and those who fabricate it for their own ends. The main conflict is a more subtle one, and not so overt: it is the confrontation between reality and fantasy; distinguishing between authentic and apocryphal information, and discerning between fact and fiction. To be sure, the author constructs the book with such brilliance, with historical and current information, that the reader forgets that s/he is indeed reading fiction. McNallys message is that whether we seek to discover the magic shooter, or understand the purpose of the local spy, or reconcile someones tragic death, it cannot occur through preparing and sitting for a standardized exam, but through a close, detailed reading of our relationships, and connecting the dots between what people say and what they do. Doing so helps us to empathize with the lycanthrope and to expel the modern Iago.
Kirschenbaurm, H., Simon, S. B., & Napier, R. W. (1971). Wad-ja-get? The grading game in American education. New York: Hart Publishing Company.