The novel is set in Bristol, England during the 1980s. During this time period, Bristol was suffering from an economic depression. Its heyday as a manufacturing town had declined. Many businesses failed, and as people lost their jobs, they had to give up their homes. Those economic circumstances underlie the actions of Richard in the novel. As an anarchist he views his behavior as political action. He lives on the fringes of society, opening squats (abandoned houses) so that runaways and other street people will have a place to live. He also creates "lock-outs"—in the middle of the night Richard and his friends dress in costumes and squirt superglue in the locks of bank doors.
Eventually British authorities stiffened the laws about "squatting" and the practice was abandoned in the middle of the 1980s. However, at the time in which the novel is set, squatting was tolerated without too much interference from the authorities. In the novel, as long as the characters are not caught breaking into the house, the authorities are willing to tolerate their presence in the house.
Burgess convincingly describes the life of runaways on the street. When Tar first runs away to Bristol, before Gemma has joined him, he is living very badly. He tries to sleep outside in his sleeping bag but gets so cold he ends up wandering around most of the night. He then discovers that people wrap themselves in cardboard boxes to stay warm. While the boxes are an improvement,...
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The outstanding literary achievement of Smack is Burgess's development of ten distinctive voices to tell the story and the placement of those voices in such a way that they comment on each other. Gemma and Tar narrate just over half of the chapters. The other chapters are distributed among Skolly, the tobacconist; Richard, the anarchist; Vonny, Richard's girlfriend through much of the novel; Sally, Rob, and Lily, all heroin addicts; Emily Brogan, Gemma's mother; and Mr. Lawson, Tar's father. Each character has a distinctive voice that conveys a complex view of the situation. None of the characters seems to speak for the author.
Because there is no consistent narrative perspective in the novel, readers must recognize irony and think carefully about what the characters are saying. An obvious example is when Gemma explains directly to the reader that using heroin is just a part of life: "You poor brat, you've been brainwashed. Look, drugs are fun. They make you feel good, that's all. Sure, they're powerful, that's why they're dangerous. So's life. If you're in control, then it's okay." However, by the end of the chapter, readers are skeptical that Gemma or any of the other characters is in control. Gemma reports that Tar had been painting a big dandelion on the wall but quit when they were doing heroin. When they "gave up junk for that week he almost finished it." Gemma assures readers that giving up heroin is not hard: "It wasn't difficult, coming off. I could do it again any time. So long as I feel like that I know it's all right." However, we never see Gemma give up heroin until she realizes that she is completely out of control.
Other character yokes help to clarify what is actually going on. Skolly happens to witness the raid on the house and does not recognize Tar and only recognizes Gemma as the girl he used to know from the massage parlor. His comment that "she looked about forty" helps readers to recognize the ways in which the characters' versions of events might not be very accurate. Similarly, Burgess uses Vonny and Richard to comment on what...
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What is most remarkable about Smack are the number of issues that are treated matter-of-factly rather than as issues to be discussed and developed as "themes." This book refuses to be categorized as a "problem novel," though it is rife with problems: alcoholism, abusive relationships, drug abuse, both hetero-and homosexual prostitution, premarital sex, teenage pregnancy, criminal behavior. All of these topics take a back seat to how Gemma and Tar develop as people. The lack of an authoritative narrative voice to condemn such behaviors is the cause of much of the controversy that surrounded this book when it first appeared. It would not be accurate to say that Burgess is not sensitive to these social problems; however by presenting them by means of the characters involved in them, he requires the readers to use their own moral judgment and interpretive skill to come to some conclusions about them. Even an issue such as the use of squatting is not wholeheartedly endorsed (though Burgess himself participated in squatting—see the author's "A Note on Squatting" at the end of the novel). Richard's political actions are undercut by Vonny who sees a need for more pragmatic rather than symbolic action. On the whole, readers themselves are left to draw their own conclusions about Gemma's and Tar's behavior.
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Topics for Discussion
1. Is Gemma justified in running away? How would you characterize her relationship with her parents? Are her parents justified in the rules they establish for her?
2. Who is to blame for Tar's miserable home? His mother? His father? Does Tar bear any responsibility?
3. Each of the narrating characters has his or her own weaknesses, biases, and flaws. How do Vonny's, Richard's, Skolly's, or any other character's problems affect their perception of Gemma and Tar?
4. Discuss Gemma's decision to make herself over as punk? What does this help us understand about her character?
5. Discuss Tar's development in the novel. How does he change?
6. Discuss Gemma's development in the novel. How does she change?
7. Why do you think that Tar is willing to try heroin? Why is Gemma willing to try it? What do their motivations say about their characters?
8. Is Gemma acting selfishly when she phones the police and reports the house?
9. Does Burgess make using heroin look attractive? Is that appropriate?
10. None of the characters seems to suffer any serious consequences for their numerous crimes in this novel. Is that realistic?
11. Discuss the role of adults and other authority figures in the novel. Explain why the adolescents in the novel do not respect the them.
12. If the dandelions that Tar sees and tries to paint are symbols, what might they...
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Ideas for Reports and Papers
1. What are the physical and psychological effects of heroin addiction?
2. This novel was controversial when it was first published in Britain because some critics believed that it was inappropriate for adolescents. Agree or disagree with the critics' position and defend your answer using the text to support your position. See articles in For Further Reference for more information about the controversy.
3. Compare methadone to heroin. What does it do that helps the heroin addict? Why is it more addictive?
4. Rewrite one of the chapters from your own point of view and in your own conversational voice.
5. What were the causes of the economic depression in England in the late 1970s and 1980s?
6. What was the punk music scene in England in the 1980s? Who were the important bands? What were the best songs?
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Smack was been adapted as a stage play and performed by the Oxford Stage Company and nominated in England for the Equity Award for the Best Show for Children and Young People in 1998. The novel is being adapted for a three-part TV movie currently under production. Many of Burgess's earlier novels are difficult to obtain in the United States and some are out of print. Burning Issy, a novel set in the seventeenth century, focuses on a young girl who befriends both white and black witches and is imprisoned herself as a witch. Another book by Burgess about teenagers living on the street is The Baby and Fly Pie, a futuristic novel about three street kids who intercept the kidnapping of the infant of a wealthy family...
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For Further Reference
Brennan, Geraldine. "Author defends Junk." Times Educational Supplement (June 6, 1997): 7. Summarizes the criticisms against the British version of the novel and the reasoning of the committee that awarded the novel the Carnegie Medal. Includes commentary by Burgess on the controversy the novel caused.
"Judges take a chance on antiheroes and heroin." Times Educational Supplement (July 18, 1997): 9. Burgess comments on the controversy regarding Junk.
Cuthbertson, Ken. "Melvin Burgess." Authors & Artists for Young Adults, vol. 28. Detroit: Gale, 1999. Provides background regarding the author as well as summaries of Burgess's other novels.
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