Friday, April 29, 2011

Compulsion: Getting Trapped in a Character's Head

Compulsion, by Heidi Ayarbe, is about seventeen-year-old Jake, a high school soccer star about to play in the state championship game. Everything is riding on this game. To his team, it's the glory of a third championship in a row. To his father and his coach, it means scouts and scholarships for their boy--and a chance to live vicariously through him. To Jake, it means freedom. If he's perfect, if he keeps the magic, if he wins the game, it means he can be normal.

Because right now, Jake is not normal, and he's not free. He's a slave. His master? We know it as Obsessive Compulsive Disorder (OCD), but Jake doesn't. He only knows he has to keep the people around him safe. He has to keep the spiders away. It's a full-time job.

I've posted about a character with OCD before--Kendall in Lisa McMann's Cryer's Cross. I would classify Kendall's OCD as relatively mild and mostly under control. She had received treatment. and, although she still had some compulsions, she was functioning very well.

Jake is an entirely different story. In Compulsion, OCD is a character. More precisely, it's the villain, and it's the most malicious and implacable adversary I've ever seen on a page (have I mentioned I read A LOT?). The reason it's such a looming presence is the author's incredible ability to delve deep into Jake's perspective. Some books read like you're watching a movie on a screen. Compulsion feels like you've strapped on a pair of virtual reality goggles and gotten trapped in the character's head (in that way, it is similar to Andrew Smith's The Marbury Lens).

Every once in awhile, I like to review a book or character using my own criteria for writing YA characters with emotional or mental disorders. I'll do that here, just to give you a sense of how Heidi Ayarbe created a complex, three-dimensional character by refusing to pull any punches:

1. Individuality: Not every person with OCD engages in chronic hand-washing and compulsive cleaning. Jake's obsessed with prime numbers. He compulsively adds numbers--from the clock (he owns several and wears a wind-up watch so the battery never runs out and leaves him trapped without numbers), from signage, from just about anywhere. He adds, subtracts, and multiplies, trying to end up with the primes that let him know everything is right with the universe:
 12:29am. Twelve twenty-nine. One plus two is three plus two is five plus nine is fourteen divided by two is seven. OK.
Jake's clinical presentation is unique, quirky, and complex. It goes beyond anything you might have read in a textbook or article about OCD. And if you know someone with OCD or you have it yourself, you'll recognize some of his rituals and tendencies, but they won't match exactly. No stereotypes here.

2. Depth: Jake has complicated relationships with the people around him, including his sister and his best friend. He has plans for his future that no one could guess. He has spidery memories he's desperate to keep away. He's attracted to and fascinated by people who manage to be real and unafraid. He's a fan of Anthony Bourdain. In other words, he's not just a character with OCD. He's Jake Martin, a believable, breathing, fully fleshed-out person.

3. Reality: Despite his soccer stardom and his popularity at school, this guy is seriously impaired. The OCD gets in his way every day. For example, he's constantly late. His friends and family think it's because he's lazy or irresponsible, but that's not it at all. The reality is that he's utterly trapped by his rituals and compulsions. If he doesn't start the day off right, at dawn, with his prime numbers and his counting ritual, dressing in exactly the right order, skipping the fourth and eighth step on the way down the stairs, tapping the grandfather clock, opening the door with both hands on the knob ... he's in serious trouble. Bad things will happen. At one point, he's so trapped by this stuff that he's unable to help someone who needs him very badly. As I was reading it, I just wanted to scream with frustration--but that's what makes this book so effective. That's what OCD does to people.

4. Accuracy: Jake straight up meets the criteria for OCD. He's got a pretty severe case (his mother does, too). Even though he is unaware of exactly what it's called, he knows something is wrong with him. I don't think the words "obsessive compulsive disorder" actually appear in this book. And yet, it's so clear what it is, and that's because this is a pretty darn accurate portrayal of what this disorder looks like.

5. Perspective: Unlike Cryer's Cross, Compulsion is really about OCD. It's not a side thing or a background thing. It's an exhausting, cruel, in-your-face thing. Jake is being strangled by it. It keeps him from doing the things everybody else does, things he should be able to enjoy. It puts him in a cage, where he can't reach the people he needs and who need him. Despite all that, Jake himself is still sympathetic. He's fighting, hard, to get to normal. OCD doesn't define him, and because of that, you know he has a chance to beat it.

Compulsion comes out Tuesday, May 3rd. To watch the trailer (which has the same claustrophobic, urgent, caged feel as the book), go here. To see an amazing post about the collaborative editing process for this book, complete with scans of handwritten notes between the editor and the author, go here (there's also a chance to win a copy of Compulsion signed by Heidi Ayarbe or a three-page crit from her editor, Ruta Rimas at Balzer+Bray/HarperCollins).

OCD is about control. Or, more accurately, it's about the illusion of control. Those who have this disorder bear a terrible burden--to keep themselves and those they love safe, they have to do all these ridiculous, painful, frustrating things. If you want a taste of what that feels like, Compulsion is about as close as you're going to get. If you want a lesson in how to write POV as deep as the Mariana Trench, make Compulsion your textbook. If you want to read something that pulls you straight out of your comfort zone and gives your brain a deep tissue massage, well, you know.


  1. Wow, Sarah, you read the coolest books. I've already read a number of them because of your posts. Love you for that. :D

    And great breakdown on characterization. I love how you point out that he is not a stereotype. That's something we all should be striving for while maintaining accuracy to the condition. :)

  2. wow! this sounds amazing! where's that list of books to add this onto... oh! there it is!
    need more time!

  3. This really is a crippling disorder. People who say they're OCD and really aren't have NO idea.

    This looks like an excellent book!

  4. I'm more MG than YA, but you have really sold me on this one. Great review.

    Two questions: if, as it seems, Jake is so strangled by his rituals, how is it that he's so successful a soccer player? Do the compulsions "turn off" while he plays soccer?

    And, is there any cure for what comes across at least to me as a terribly debilitating condition?

  5. Definitely putting this on my TBR list!

  6. You make this book sound *so* good. Definitely on my TBR list when it comes out.
    - Sophia.

  7. And that's going on my wish list.

  8. Sigh...I'm thinking I can only afford to read your blog once a week. :( I just bought the book about hoarding, now I want this one too. Great post, Sarah.

  9. Did you write those first two paragraphs? If so, kudos. If not, kudos to whoever did. Gripping from the get-go!

    You've done an amazing job of disecting this! OCD is something that A LOT of people don't really understand and books like this make the reader "feel" and "understand" it. This book especially has taken a look at OCD in a way that most people might never see. Most people think it's chronic counting, touching, washing, etc. But like you said--it's not always that way.

    Nice job!


  10. I love that you test the accuracy of these stories and if they meet criteria for the diagnoses. I also love how the stakes are in the MC's mind. Fascinating.

  11. Love the deep tissue analogy. Compulsion is completely uncomfortable and painful while you read it, but absolutely therapeutic and worthwhile in the end. Amazing book.

  12. wow, soundsl ike a great book. I like the idea of it and the feel you described.

  13. Yipes, this sounds absolutely fantastic. I am really looking forward to reading it now - great analysis!

  14. Thanks for sharing this. I'm going to look it up on Goodreads now.

  15. what an awesome blog! here is so many things I like! Can`t wait to see more :)

    have a great time,

  16. It sounds like an interesting book that can show a different side of OCD than what is typically portrayed in the media. Many people recognize the compulsions of OCD but do not fully understand how debilitating the obsessions can be.

  17. Love this review. While I didn't enjoy the book as much as you, I really loved how OCD was front and center.