How do the voices in Junk undermine and transgress authority?

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durbanville | High School Teacher | (Level 2) Educator Emeritus

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In Junk, also called Smack, by Melvin Burgess, the language is simple and straightforward but there is an intention to shock. The book traces the lives of characters like Tar and Gemma as they react to a difficult economic climate, dysfunctional family life and a society which is failing its youth. Burgess discusses difficult topics, taboo subjects and generally accepted conventions in explaining how easy it is to slip over to the less-desirable side of town.

Bristol is full of runaways and they all have their own reasons for being there. However, in reality, Tar and Gemma really are just "a boy and a girl." Having run away from an abusive environment, Tar hates his life, "in public," where he cannot get a good night's sleep and feels more like an animal "in a zoo." His abusive father is a teacher and, significantly, Tar's actions, therefore seem more like an insult to the educational system. However, it is Tar's father's inability to cope with his own family environment and his alcoholic wife, which insults the system and transgresses authority. His attempts to teach his son a lesson take the parent/ child relationship too far. In blaming Tar (David) for not stopping his mother and for supporting her addiction, he creates insecurities in his son which contribute to Tar's own inability to cope socially. He is weak and dependent on others, especially Gemma and he learns little, leaving the reader doubtful that he will ever rise above his problems.  

The youths have no consideration for the law and this is their way of fighting the system, undermining the very authority which is supposed to protect them. They squat illegally, they steal and Gemma and Lily are involved in prostitution, from which they earn enough to sustain their heroine habit. Tar does try to protect Gemma, taking responsibility for drug possession during a police raid and spending time in a treatment center. However, he does not have enough faith in himself or the system to stay "clean." His ultimate transgression will be his failure to recognize that violence is not authority and beating Gemma will solve nothing.  

Gemma is quite a contrast to Tar and she intends to prove a point to her parents whose authority stifles her and which she is intent on undermining. She is immature and unable to recognize that with independence comes responsibility and therefore she searches for someone whom she can emulate who does not need to stay within the law, or even his or her own version of it. Richard and Vonny for Gemma also represent a system which is, ironically, too similar to the family she ran away from. Lily is the person whom Gemma thinks has the right idea. She believes that Lily is "more herself than anyone else ever was," despite the fact that Lily flouts the system. Eventually, however, even Gemma realizes that Lily goes too far in transgressing the law. There is a limit. Phoning the police is her way of saving herself but, perhaps, even though her motives are selfish, she can help the others.  

There is much stepping over the line in Junk but Burgess expresses otherwise overlooked perspectives. Voices that are often discounted because they are examples of extreme behavior are given an outlet in Junk and reveal that undermining and transgressing authority is sometimes a very subjective issue which needs to be viewed more openly if anyone is to learn from its often unfortunate outcomes. 

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