Friday, January 21, 2011

The Marbury Lens: The Bounds of the Real

The Marbury Lens, by Andrew Smith, is about sixteen-year-old Jack Whitmore, who gets kidnapped and narrowly escapes. And that's just the beginning of the story. When he and his best friend, Conner, travel to London for summer break, a stranger gives Jack a pair of glasses. Through these glasses, Jack is able to see and experience another world: Marbury. It's not a good place.

Right up front, I'll tell you this: I loved this book, but it scared the crap out of me. And Jack broke my heart. And I'm still thinking about it, and those thoughts make me squirmy inside. The author did his job. I said I was a fan of visceral books, and this is about as visceral as they get (if you like Stephen King, then Marbury is for you!).

I could write so many posts about The Marbury Lens: The acute aftereffects of Jack's traumatic experience. His poignant, authentic relationship with Conner. His sexual naïveté and how that plays out with a girl he meets. His struggle to do the right thing (or, the least terrible thing) in the most barbaric of circumstances. However, what I'm going to focus on today: Jack's oft-repeated question as he is yanked in and out of the world of Marbury ...

Is this real?

I admit, as I read, I pondered this pretty feverishly. For psychologists, the question of whether someone's experience is "real"--as opposed to the product of hallucination or delusion--is a very serious one. In The Marbury Lens, Jack tries to negotiate the "real" world while simultaneously experiencing an alternate universe full of cruelty and bleak odds for survival. He becomes deeply emotionally invested in this world and its inhabitants, particularly two younger boys who look to him for leadership. Despite the horrors of Marbury, Jack goes back again and again, unable to stay away.

But still, he keeps asking if it's real, and so did I.

An easy definition of reality: the world as it actually is.

Hilarious. If that's the case, reality is impossible for humans to perceive. We're finite, so how can we accurately perceive something infinitely complicated? And I'm not just talking quantum theory and whether-God-exists, I'm talking about the diversity of our perceptions and how my reality is different from your reality.

But if you and I and a couple other folks were in a room together, could we agree on whether that creature sitting in the corner and waving at us was actually there ... or not?

Probably we would agree that if only one of us could see it, the likelihood of it being "real" diminishes. Yes?

What if two of us could see it and three of us couldn't?

What if all but one of us could see it?

What if that one person could offer scientific proof that the thing sitting in the corner wasn't actually there, but the rest of us could hear the thing talking, and it told us our resident scientist was officially nuts?


To some extent, we co-create our reality. We are very much reassured when others perceive the same things we do. It makes things real for us. Of course, popular conception--or perception--is sometimes proven wrong, but that doesn't always change our beliefs about reality. Especially if we've still got others on our side. As he's trying to determine what's real, Jack looks for that kind of comfort, but a few things get in the way--like the fact that Conner, who loves him and could provide the reassurance he needs ... is trying to kill him in Marbury.

I am swayed more by data than anecdote. I'm a horrible skeptic. A scientist. A realist. And yet, I'm a person of faith. Sometimes my head is an uncomfortable place to inhabit. Maybe that's why this book affected me so deeply. It explores this concept of other realities pancaked on top of (or within) ours, edges kissing, occasionally intruding upon each other. I absolutely love this idea. I find it both terrifying and incredibly hopeful. Unsettling AND reassuring.

So: does Marbury turn out to be an elaborate hallucination? Is Jack grabbing his demons by the horns in an alternate world, or is he dissociating as a result of the trauma he endured? Is his journey one to hell or healing? Is he taking control or losing it? Is his need to return to Marbury emotional addiction or moral compulsion? Is Marbury real?

Would you like to find out?

If you've read this book, what do you think?

(And, most importantly, do you need a sequel as badly as I do?)


  1. I must read this. Must. Must. Must! I'm guessing it's YA horror? I need to get it ASAP!

    I often if the world I'm living in right now is real. Sometimes I wished it wasn't. LoL. Then again, sometimes it's pretty freakin' great.


  2. Hi! I'm your 100th follower. :)

    I can tell I'm going to love this blog. I'm a biologist with a strong interest in perception. Animals detect the world in a completely different way from how humans do... so how can we possibly say that what we experience is any more "real" than what a bat - or any other animal - experiences?

  3. JD--yep, I would say this one is the perfect YA horror. As I was reading, I was thinking it reminded me of SK (though it's totally original), and then I read an interview where the author himself actually said this book was in some ways an homage to King.

    Alison--I am honored, and you are awesome. I love your point--it's like we all have a piece of the reality puzzle, but then it gets filtered further through our hopes/wishes/biases/selective attention ... and we get our perception of reality--not just limited, but also just a bit twisted. Fascinating and humbling.

  4. Ooooh, interesting! I'm gonna have to get this book! ;)

  5. Very interesting post. Food for thought.:)

    I haven't read this book but will add it to my list. Also, have you read Liar. Different type of book, but very psychologically driven and reader has to figure out what is reality/fake.

  6. Jennifer--LIAR is definitely on my list! KO recommended it, actually, and I'm eager to read.

  7. Oh. I have a lot to say about this, Sarah. Let me collect my thoughts and come back with something that won't sound crazy (may be private to you). In any event, this is quite brilliant. Thank you very much.


  8. I've heard about this too and I really want to read it! Thanks for the psychology perspective, too!

  9. I loved this book SO much. And I said the same thing--it's as close to Stephen King (at his best) as I've seen anything come in YA. Ever.

    I read a lot of horror, and my favorite (and the creepiest to me) are the ones that have a strong psychological aspect--ones that question reality. Love, love, love, zomg, love.

    Andrew Smith is brilliant.

    Great post, Sarah!

  10. Found this from the link on Andrew's page. I, too, just can't get this book out of my brain. I feel like I should charge Andrew rent for taking up prime real estate in my mind.

    That said, you know, I kind of don't want a sequel. If he writes one, I'm so there. But this stands so well on its own and forces me to dwell on my questions and interpretations. I worry that a sequel would invalidate my constantly evolving conclusions.

  11. Joanna--Yes. The best horror sometimes comes from within and intensifies the external.

    Brian--I know exactly what you're saying. I went back and forth on it. I could live with the questions. It's Jack (and Conner) I want to follow. And ... based on Andrew's #ml2 Twitter hashtag ... get ready.

  12. You know how when you've had a really good experience and the memory of it keeps bouncing around in your brain so you can keep reliving and relishing the experience? That's The Marbury Lens. Unless Andrew writes one hell of a sequel (and I'm sure he can), I think Marbury should stand alone and keep us guessing.

  13. You need to tell me whether this post is spoiler free before I can read it. I'm about 2/3rds of the way through this incredible, visceral, disturbing novel, and like the glasses, or like heroin, I can't put it down.

  14. I find this post fascinating. It's a very interesting question.

    Consider that some people might argue that the hallucinations one experiences when they don't sleep, or when they take magic mushrooms, are real, and we certainly can't prove that they're not, but I for one think it's more a matter of belief. If you've believe it's real, really BELIEVE, then it is.

    For example, look at a street sign from a distance. If it is a street you recognize, and you know how the street name is spelled, your brain will often trick you into thinking you can read and make out the letters from a distance that your eyesight is actually not good enough to allow. If you don't recognize the street, and have no memory of how its name is spelled, you won't be able to read it.

    It's a curious phenomenon, and that is only a very simple example.

    In the book, and I must point out again, I'm not finished yet, the one thing that disturbs me the most is when Con begins to reinforce Jack's experience, by seeing similar things. If it were only Jack it would be easier to dismiss as PTSD or Schizophrenia, or some other disassociative condition, but that isn't an option in this tale.

    I'm absolutely loving this book so far, and do I truly hope Andrew comes back to add his thoughts here, rather than giving them to Sarah privately.

    Sarah - as we discussed, you might want to add a teensy little spoiler warning before you point out about - SPOILER ALERT - Con trying to kill Jack in Marbury. - END SPOILER ALERT - That might be a bit of a shocker to someone who hasn't read that far.

  15. I just got this yesterday and I'm moving it to the top of the pile right now! Thanks for the awesome review! :D

  16. Very interesting post! I think about this a lot, actually. When you're raised in the church, much of the time you grow up expecting to see angels and demons at every turn. Though I tend to be skeptical about things like reported ghost sighting, there's a part me that isn't always completely 100% positive that reality only extends to the verifiable.

    That gray area is pretty interesting and can provoke some amazing stories.

  17. Matt--your point is well taken, but people who are psychotic REALLY BELIEVE their experiences are real, and for the sake of their well-being and functioning, we have to say they're not. For example, someone with an erotomanic delusion might ABSOLUTELY believe he is married to Snooki ... but that's not real. So belief can't really be the bar by which we measure reality. However, consensus often is--for good or ill.

    I mean, just because something is your reality doesn't make it real by objective standards--and if it's real to you, it still might be your perception that's faulty. Tricky. I love it.

  18. Oh, and Matt--folie a deux did occur to me re: Conner.

    Carolyn--I have no doubt you'll enjoy it!

    Sarah--yes re: our cultural exposure to beliefs and how they affect our perception of reality, and YES--it does make for great stories.

  19. I didn't mean to imply that a person who believes his hallucinations are real should be told he's right. I just meant that to him, they are real. Therein lies the conundrum.

    Also, please scratch what I said about spoilers, apparently I should read the inside jacket flap first.

  20. I had to look up folie a deux, and I admit I'm no psychologist, but I'm not sure if I believe that's possible. I'll have to think about it.

  21. Matt--no, I know you weren't implying that. But it is hard with folks who believe things that are verifiably untrue, right? Because they're so convinced they're real. And even if they accept the possibility their perceptions are not real, which is part of recovery and a sign of health, it's often terrifying for them.

    And--you don't believe folie a deux is possible, or just in the case of The Marbury Lens? There are case studies--usually there's a more dominant personality and a follower. Think cult. Anyway, I'm not saying it's the best fit in this case, but I did think about it. Want to know where I first heard the term? Not a textbook. The X-files :)

  22. Hi Sarah- I followed you over from Justine's blog. The Marbury Lens is on my short list at the library.

  23. That is crazy! Good old x-files.

    What I meant is that I'm undecided whether I believe someone could force hallucinations or other delusions onto another person through sheer force of will. I don't mean that I don't think a person could influence another into exhibiting behavior that would fit that mold. You give a perfect example, there are plenty of cult cases that could certainly prove that one person can convince others to behave (think ritual group suicide) as if they believe the others' delusions; I just don't think that say if one person actually believed they saw a pink elephant telling them to drink the Kool-Aid, that they could actually make other REALLY SEE the exact same hallucination.

    But ... like I said, I'm kind of undecided. Anything is probably possible and I will say it's fascinating either way.

    When it comes to the story here ... hmm. I'm not sure that it matters what I think, it's fiction after all. All I know is that I love it, and now intend to finish this very night.

    I may come back to rant and ramble some more once I do. Thanks for making me think Sarah!

  24. I just wrote the LONGEST comment and... poof! the blogger gods ate it.


    I am so glad to see this mature discussion of my book. I most enjoy the divergent perspectives on reality vs. perception in Jack's universe. It was my intent to have people ask these questions. I have my own answers, but they are my own.

    More importantly, I wanted to address the civil nature of the discourse here. I have received (a very few) comments that are hostile and mean, both about The Marbury Lens and me, for having written it.

    In the larger scheme of things, I think the hostility has more to do with the unwillingness of the larger population to think about -- much less talk about -- the consequences of sexual abuse on boys. Boys themselves are socialized toward self-blame, internalization, and other self-destructive defenses, which is what happens to Jack, and explains eloquently why we frequently only hear of the victimization of boys decades after the fact.

    (another post follows)

  25. This comment has been removed by the author.

  26. As far as a sequel is concerned, first, to Marianne and Brian, let me say that I am a notorious non-fan of sequels and series.

    The reason is that sequels often collapse down the value of the preceding work to a shriveled-up nothing (the center of Jack's universe). But, what if a sequel could turn readers' ideas over on their heads yet again, and MAKE them need to go back and re-read the first book (just like Jack's need to return to Marbury)?

    Ahhh... now that would be a sequel.

    Just a thought.

    Sarah, this is the COOLEST blog ever. And I am going to send you an email off-line. I just have a couple questions for you.

    Thank you,


  27. Andrew,

    I can't say for sure but I may have just shuddered with anticipation at your comment. If a sequel's coming, please make sure I have adequate time to recover for ML1 first.


  28. Wow, I never seen Matt have that much to say before. ;)

    I'll admit I've never read it. I usually shy away from books lacking in the romance department. On the other hand, I've been wanting to read a YA horror, so maybe I'll have to give it a try.

  29. I have been goin off, haven't I Stina? It's because this story is that compelling. Go get it. Now.

  30. Oh, and Stina, there is definitely a love story in the book, too. It's just not a romance.

  31. wow! this book sounds amazing!
    it's an interesting thought about co-defining reality. my sister and i argue about this all the time- but we call reality "truth" and use the old car accident scenario- you know where everyone has their own perceptions of what happened and then the police have to try to piece together what really happened from the various stories... i argue that there is one reality, and that just because no one individual can decipher it doesn't mean it doesn't exist... while my sister argues that because it can't be percieved there is no one reality but millions of individual realities. but i like how you put it... there is one reality, and for practical sense we need to co-define it, but that doesn't necessarily mean we are right. EXCELLENT! :)
    also, i thought of art classes during this post. you know when all the students are painting the same subject matter, but all the interpretations are different... that's the simple image that comes to my mind when i think of differences in perception...
    sarah! you rock my socks! :)

  32. aspiring_x--there are few things more fun to argue about, in part because you can't really get to a final answer. And--re: your socks, it's a privilege.

    Matt--you are correct. Although it's surprising what humans can induce other humans to see and believe (see: certain interrogation/torture techniques and what they do to people's minds), folie a deux is most often a shared delusion, not a hallucination (in other words, a shared believe, and not a shared vision). I'm eager to see your comments once you've finished the book.

    Andrew--thanks again for participating in the discussion and adding your insights. Now I'm thinking a post on the specific effects of sexual abuse on boys is called for. I shall take to the literature and ponder.

  33. Sarah, if folie a deux is a shared delusion how is it shared? I mean Jack doesn't share details of Marbury withConner, he answers a couple of questions two different times but he never goes into details.

    Stina there may not be "romance" but you have Jack and Nickie's relationship and Jack and Conner's relationship. I see it as two different types of love stories. One physical between two people and one that is a deep brotherly-do anything-for you bound between Jack and Conner. Some people are uncomfortable with the intensity of that friendship and assume there's more going on deep down. It's ok for girls to have deep friendships but not boys. Which is a sad state of mind.

    Now back to the folie question, if Marbury is one delusion being shared then who started the "delusion"? I really had myself convinced Jack was stuck someone drugged up bc of the whole Freddy deal but I keep thinking, if Henry was real then Jack did get away and he was in London and maybe Marbury was real. So I emailed Andrew -one of many, many emails -sorry Andrew:) and asked Is Henry real? I've got to know. And he said yes. Ok I can't remember the exact quote but he said Henry was real to him.

    **I'm using my phone and can't scroll properly to spell chck or even make sure I'm not repeating myself so if it's not makin since, sorry**:)

    Connie- obsessed fan but not a stalker

  34. Connie--Oh--I never said I had concluded that folie a deux was what occured in ML. Not at all--in fact, I said it wasn't a good fit.

    Let me explain why I mentioned it: When I read, and at this point I just can't help myself, I try to solve psychological mysteries much like I assess a client--differential diagnosis. We start with the diagnostic field wide open and then add or rule out diagnoses as we gather evidence.

    The question you raised regarding how a delusion (actually, in this case, it would also have been auditory and visual hallucinations) could have been shared given the limited extent of the disclosure between Conner and Jack would help me rule out a case of shared psychotic disorder (a more modern term for folie a deux) or acquired delusional disorder.

    Also ... it's fiction, so things don't always fit perfectly anyway, nor do I expect them to. It's just difficult for me to separate my reader-self from my psychologist-self. Sorry for the confusion, and thanks for commenting!

  35. My reader-self likes to forget it is just fiction and so I try to make it work in my mind. LoL Maybe bc its a combination of wanting to mother Jack and feeling very strange that I can relate to a fictional character a quarter of my age and not even the same gender and the fact I would put those glasses on given the chance.

  36. Hi Sarah,
    I just became your latest follower (I was at Justine Dell's blog and saw yours) ;)
    Your question on reality is certainly very interesting. My mentor would love this discussion since he's written about this topic.
    See you soon!

  37. So glad to see this discussion continuing. I'm almost done Sarah, and will be back with more thoughts soon!

  38. I'm reading The Marbury Lens for the second time. I blazed through it the first time, not really thinking about the bigger ramifications of reality versus fantasy (or different realities unseen by us) and I wanted to read it a second time with a more critical eye (and because I can't get the book out of my freaking head!)

    The thing that immediately sticks out to me is that belief doesn't define reality. Other's shared perception of what we see can define OUR view of reality, but it in no way affects the real. For example, none of us can see what's going on on the surface of Mars, but Mars still clearly exists. Just as countless millions of people believe in some form of a god, though that belief doesn't prove existence.

    There's a distinct difference in the statement, "Marbury is real to Jack" and "Marbury is real." To a schizophrenic, their hallucinations can seem very real to them, undistinguishable from reality, but that doesn't make them real. That same schizophrenic can convince ten people that there's a monster in the corner, but that doesn't mean there is.

    However, the more I read, the more I suspect that there is both a psychological aspect to Marbury as well as a real one. Why is everyone in Marbury dead? Are they victims of Freddy Horvath? To someone who has been abused (like Jack) the world might just be divided into us and them. Con is trying to kill him because he is not an abuse victim.

    For some time, I wondered if Jack ever escaped Horvath. I thought it possible that, still trapped, Jack and the other boys created a shared delusion. But I think Andrew let Jack escape into the real world to show us that the victim is still victimized out there. But if Con and Jack murdered Horvath, then it's possible that the two boys they find at the end were his last victims, who escaped when he never returned home.

    I'm only about 50 pages into my second reading, but I hope this conversation picks up again...