The Utopian Turn in YA Lit

By Ellen Wayland-SmithJune 7, 2020

The Utopian Turn in YA Lit

Rage is a Wolf by kt mather

ELAINE ARCHER, the 16-year-old protagonist of kt mather’s debut YA novel, Rage is a Wolf, is an angry young woman. It all starts with the viral video of a suffering sea turtle that scrolls up on her phone one morning as her mom drives her to the tony Chicago high school she attends. “You know the one,” she prods the reader, “[t]he one with the straw shoved so far up its face, you couldn’t believe it was actually a straw.” Elaine’s feelings of panic and rage at the dumpster fire that is Earth in the Anthropocene escalate from there, as she worries over the pillaging of the rainforests and the melting glaciers while trying to muscle through second-period physics. She’s at a loss about what to do.

“I was never gonna be one of those kids from the internet who builds a spacelab under her bed or figures out how to quintuple barley yields using a common household bacteria,” she admits. “I wouldn’t invent a contraption to get all the plastic out of the giant plastic vortices in the ocean. I wasn’t going to chain myself to or live in a tree (that’s real — one of Mama Helen’s cousins did it in Oregon).” But neither can she stomach the alternative: cramming history dates and stressing about SAT scores alongside her overachieving, upper-middle-class, mostly white peers in preparation for a “future” she isn’t convinced she’ll even live to see. When her math teacher makes an offhand comment that some kids drop out to be “homeschooled” or even “unschooled,” she grabs her chance. She convinces her woke but justifiably nervous moms, Mama Helen and Mama Jane, to let her take junior year off as a gap year. She will write a novel. And if she doesn’t come up with the goods by the end of the year, she promises, she’ll go back to high school.

The bet is on, and as we follow Elaine on her unschooling journey, we meet a cast of nuanced, roundly imagined characters. Jenn, Elaine’s cynical, born-with-a-silver-spoon high-school sidekick who feels abandoned by her best friend’s newfound activism; Tony and Audra, artsy twentysomethings (band tour manager and tattoo artist, respectively) who give the wide-eyed Elaine a glimpse of life beyond AP calculus and high school hook-ups; Javier, a fellow home-schooler whose own artistic ambitions help keep alight the fragile flame of Elaine’s creative quest. The reader is treated to a deliciously imagined villain, a Svengali-like YA author and heartthrob-cum-scammer who serves as a prototype for a universal class of men Elaine comes to recognize as “skeevy dudes.” These figures do the typical work that bildungsroman characters do: they offer a varied series of lenses on the world that, by the end of the novel, have helped Elaine clarify her own vision of who she is and what she wants the world to be.

But the deeper importance of Rage is a Wolf, not only for the genre of YA but for broader post-#MeToo discussions of gender and representation in fiction, is that it asks us to reimagine the very premises of what Brit Marling has recently called the prototypical “strong female lead.” In her New York Times opinion piece, actor/writer Marling chronicles how liberating it was when, after years of auditioning for such (literally) dead-end roles as “the dead girl, or Dave’s wife,” she was offered the part of a “strong female lead” who actually survives until the end of the film. But she soon realized these “superwomen” characters — assassin, spy, CEO — remain tethered to what she calls “masculine modalities of power”: “physical prowess, linear ambition, focused rationality.” The qualities our culture traditionally associates with femininity, such as empathy, vulnerability, and interdependence, have been “vanquished in favor of an overwrought masculinity.”

Rage is a Wolf is a novel that powerfully reimagines what a story grounded in feminine strength — and thus a narrative driven by its very different energy — can look like. In prodding the reader to question what constitutes heroism in a female “lead” character, Rage is a Wolf cannily exposes the gendered nature of traditional narrative structures.


Elaine’s first clue in unraveling the reasons behind her ambient anger comes in the accidental form of a book report. Jenn convinces her to use some of her newly freed-up unschooling time to write an English paper for her, a review of Sex at Dawn: The Prehistoric Origins of Modern Sexuality. Floundering in her quest to start writing the Great American Novel, Elaine happily agrees to the distraction. In this 2010 best seller by Christopher Ryan and Cacilda Jethá, Elaine discovers the provocative thesis that what humans take for granted as the natural order of things in the 21st century — monogamy, private property, patriarchy, capitalism — are actually rather recent developments. Ryan and Jethá postulate that the advent of agriculture some 10,000 years ago led our polyamorous, egalitarian, nomad, hunter-gatherer ancestor clans to settle down, stake a possessive claim on the earth, and start monitoring women’s reproduction (via monogamy and the nuclear family) so that men could be sure to pass their property down to their own genetic progeny.

“Are you kidding me?” Elaine fumes as she puts down the book.

I’m not claiming, even now, that I’ve connected all the dots […] but I have a sneaking goddam suspicion that women having to trade our ability to make babies in order to eat and not be raped and killed by dudes is intimately connected to the way we’ve been eating, raping, and killing the Earth for centuries.

Feeling powerless, Elaine half-wishes for the climate apocalypse she also fears: “Maybe everybody dying is a good thing,” she thinks. “Maybe what the Earth needs is a plague and a do-over. […] Goddam farming. Goddam humans. Goddam men.” Her intuition that the rape of the earth is tied to systemic misogyny — and her unbridled rage at both — is wearily familiar to anyone following the daily news in our post-2016 world. Teen climate activist Greta Thunberg has become the butt of countless misogynist jokes, from the viral video dubbing over her UN speech with Swedish death metal music (in other words: angry women should lighten up; “Would it kill you to smile, sweetheart?”), to the recent circulation of a cartoon depicting Thunberg being raped, allegedly masterminded by a Canadian oil company.

Elaine’s dark musings on the blessings of mass extinction reminds her of an audiobook she and the moms once listened to on a road trip. Alan Weisman’s 2008 The World Without Us imagines what would happen if humans suddenly disappeared from earth and nature was left to run its course. This, and the concept of sustainable landscape architecture Elaine discovers on a visit to her uncle in Detroit, helps her imagine a world in which nature is no longer a force to be dominated or spent but rather an equal co-habitant of the human built environment. Elaine glimpses “a world under the world,” a new (old?) mode of being human on the earth that remains to be uncovered or reimagined.

Such are the seeds from which Elaine’s novel will grow. She imagines a postapocalyptic United States, where the small bands of humans who managed to survive a global pandemic have set up three compounds across the continent. Her story begins in the Under, a series of luxury underground bunker condos whose denizens pass their time immersed in endless virtual reality “sims,” and whose leaders hide from the younger generation the existence of a world outside the Under. When three teens — Radha, Merton, and Penelope — discover that there is a world above their world, they plot to escape and take their chances founding a New Eden up on earth.


I once heard a publicist describe a certain genre of YA fiction as “potato chip lit”: take one bite and you can’t stop eating until the bag is empty. I am the first to defend potato chips; they’re delicious. But part of what makes them satisfying — they go down easy, they don’t challenge your palate, they always pack a predictable salt dopamine rush — is also what risks making them entirely forgettable. The plot (taste) has already begun to fade as you stagger away from the book (bag) in a post-binge haze.

Rage is a Wolf is not potato chip lit. It is, if anything, designed precisely to counter such ease of consumption. And while the story works as compelling, forward-pushing narrative — we come to care deeply about Elaine and her friends; villains and pitfalls abound; and we are eager to know how it will all resolve — it does so on its own terms. Though recognizably plotted as a coming-of-age quest narrative, the novel’s actual structure consistently undermines — or simply ignores — some of the most cherished tropes of the genre. Over the course of the novel, Elaine develops intimate friendships with both Tony and Javier, triggering in the reader the usual speculation such pairings are designed to provoke. Elaine eventually (spoiler alert) loses her virginity to Tony. But there is no sex scene, just a jump-cut after their first kiss, leaving the reader to imagine what happens next. In fact, the reader doesn’t even learn for certain that Elaine has lost her virginity until later in the novel, when she belatedly confesses it to Jenn.

But this is nothing if not calculated anti-climax. It is Elaine’s narrative refusal to fit into the traditional shape of the male hero’s journey, what Marlin calls “the arc of male pleasure,” where the physical act of sex marks the end-goal and consummation of the quest for love. When Elaine feels abandoned by her closest friends, Tony texts her a video clip of the band he is touring with, as the lead singer dedicates a song to her. “This one’s going out to a good friend of our tour manager, Tony. Let’s just say we wouldn’t be alive without him,” she announces to raucous applause from the crowd. And then, looking into Tony’s camera, she speaks to Elaine directly: “It’s called, Don’t Take No Shit from Swine,” she says. “We hope you like it.”

At this point in the story, the reader doesn’t know the romantic status of Elaine and Tony — monogamous unit? friends with benefits? “just” friends? But these questions, as programmed as the reader is to posit them, are irrelevant; in any case, Elaine as narrator steadfastly refuses to answer them with a straightforward reveal. Their relationship consists in their commitment to holding and helping each other simply as human beings. Sex and physical intimacy are part of the story, but not the whole story — and certainly not its proverbial (male) climax.

By the last third of the book, Elaine’s novel The Under has begun to take solid shape on paper, and Rage is a Wolf toggles back and forth between Elaine’s day-to-day world and inserted segments of scripted dialogue torn from the pages of her writing notebook. As the plot and the writing of The Under pick up pace, the boundaries between Elaine’s “real” world and the world taking shape in her imagination open up: choices her characters make on the page help her rethink choices she makes in her life, and her characters’ quest, in turn, develops in response to Elaine’s ongoing process of self-discovery.

At one point in the novel, Elaine decides to kill off her female lead, Radha, in an apparent act of expiation for the cynicism and emotional coldness with which she treated her fellow-traveler Merton. This act of sacrifice has its origins in Elaine’s real-life experience, times when her own unconscious white privilege and impulsivity led her to unwittingly put others at risk. Early in the novel, she mutters audible obscenities under her breath when her English teacher chides an African-American classmate for being late to class. The classmate approaches her after the bell to ask her to kindly mind her own business: “How do you think she’s gonna treat me for the rest of the year?’ he asked, crossing his arms over his chest.” “Oh no,” Elaine thinks. “Now my heart felt like barfing.” In a later scene, Elaine escalates a fight with an off-duty police officer in the presence of Javier, who later berates her for ignoring his vulnerability as a person of color. But these two experiences of being reminded of her white privilege, as shaming and guilt-producing as they might be, will not be cues to retreat. Rather, she takes them as cues to learn, to do better next time, to forge ahead. Elaine resurrects Radha. She, too, will forgo the predictable fate of the femme fatale or the tragic female rebel; she, like Elaine, will survive until the end of the story.

To see this osmosis between life and literature, between “the real” and the imaginary, unfold in the time-space of this novel adds a meta dimension to the project that is, perhaps, its most innovative contribution to contemporary YA. The story-within-the-story is an ancient narrative trope. But its use in Rage is a Wolf differs markedly from the playful, Escher-like reflexivity of some of Borges’s stories, or the postmodern narrative trickery of Briony Tallis in Ian McEwan’s Atonement (2001). Instead, mather deploys the conceit to reimagine storytelling as antilinear, a circling, dialogic process in which doing-in-the-world is not separate from the typically cloistered act of writing-thinking-imagining. Neither world, Elaine discovers, can fully exist without the other.

The Under refers ostensibly to the underground bunker-world where Elaine’s protagonists hide in safety from the mayhem up on earth’s surface. But by the end of The Under — and by the end of Rage is a Wolf — the word “under” has abandoned its connotations of hiding and, instead, is filled with hope and dizzying possibility: it looks forward to the world under the world that Elaine has painstakingly excavated, reimagined, and is prepared now to go forth and create.


Utopian movements have always had stern critics, who see in their pie-in-the-sky dogmatism a path to political irrelevance (if not, in its more sinister forms, a path to the gulag and concentration camp). In her 2020 book The Force of Nonviolence, Judith Butler writes that her attempts to outline a politics of “global obligations that serve all inhabitants of the world, human and animal,” is regularly dismissed by even left-wing theorists as naïve. But to imagine what she calls a “post-sovereign understandings of cohabitation” is no less intrinsically naïve — or fantastical — than the foundation myths of modern Western political thought. From Hobbes to Rousseau to Locke, the “state of nature” is invariably imagined as populated by adult sovereign males always already in conflict with one another, and in need of a state to limit and manage their competing individual claims. “What support, what dependency,” Butler wonders, “has to be disavowed for the fantasy of self-sufficiency to take hold, for the story to start with a timeless adult masculinity?”

If the COVID-19 pandemic currently poised to rip its way through the US population has made one thing clear, it is that hare-brained, utopian schemes to make the world over — like, say, instituting universal health care in our country — might not be so utopian after all. It has also made clear the dangers of the cult of self-sufficiency, decrying human interdependency as “weak” and “feminine.” “To be ill is to know our interconnectedness,” writes Meghan O’Rourke in a recent essay for The Atlantic on COVID-19. “But to be ill in America today is to be brought up against the pathology of a culture that denies this fact.” From the depths of our current chaos, Rage is a Wolf emerges as a salutary call to reimagine our foundation myths: in other words, to imagine a story that starts — and ends — otherwise.


Ellen Wayland-Smith is the author of Oneida: From Free Love Utopia to the Well-Set Table (2016) and of The Angel in the Marketplace: Adwoman Jean Wade Rindlaub and the Selling of America (2020). Her essays and reviews have appeared in CatapultThe Millions, Guernica, Aeon, and Longreads.

LARB Contributor

Ellen Wayland-Smith is the author of two books of American cultural history, Oneida: From Free Love Utopia to the Well-Set Table (Picador, 2016) and The Angel in the Marketplace: Adwoman Jean Wade Rindlaub and the Selling of America (University of Chicago Press, 2020). Her essay collection, The Science of Last Things, is forthcoming from Milkweed Press in 2024. She is a professor (teaching) in the Writing Program at the University of Southern California.


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