Many teens can tell you easily enough how hard and complicated it is being a teenager – you know, trying to find true love, making it through school, maybe even, forming a band – but, sometimes, life can get a little more complicated when a force bigger than yourself comes pushing its way toward you. Now, this force is not necessarily magical, but nonetheless, it is extraordinary precisely because it is grim and real.
From powerful guitar riffs to dead rock stars, Janet Tashjian’s new novel, For What It’s Worth, wonderfully captures the prevalence of the music scene (the artists and songs) and its significance in the early and tumultuous 1970s. While the novel craftily engages music, it also leaves the main antagonistic force, the Vietnam War, looming in the background far too long. The conflict is not a climatic and strong element of the book. If you’re willing to overlook the underdeveloped conflict and characters, for the sake of the awesome music discussed in the book, then For What It’s Worth would make a fine read.
Unlike other novels you’ve read about the devastating and unpopular Vietnam War, this book isn’t solely about the politics and devious plottings against the “man”. This book deals with the way a normal kid named Quinn starts gaining consciousness of the war’s pervasive and impending presence in normal civilian life — despite his insistence on ignoring it. Although Tashjian initially takes a unique perspective on the socio-political effects of the Vietnam War, she ends up relying on conventional Vietnam War tropes – the draft dodger, Napalm. The problem isn’t that she uses these conventional tropes, but rather, that she does not uniquely develop them further. On the other hand, the musical allusions Tashjian integrates in the story actually expand on the characterization of Quinn. The very detailed musical references – which can seem overwhelmingly exhaustive to a young reader or non-rock aficionado- build a unique image of Quinn, revealing his emotional response to daily occurrences. Also, the recurring facts ground the work into a specific and authentic California setting of the 1970s. Tashjian carefully maps out Quinn’s neighborhood, which points to famous rock events and rock star life.
Along with the social context, Tashjian incorporates some of Quinn’s short newspaper columns that reference biographical trivia and musical events pertaining to various artists that the character encounters either personally or through records. Told through Quinn’s perspective, the story alternately divides into three sections, each with a different writing format. Beginning with the actual narrative the format changes to a newspaper column, then to a reflective journal. Although Tashjians’ expansive use of facts may alienate the reader, they are lured back with Quinn’s personal and direct address to the reader, in the book’s journal section. In here, you will find the character’s thought process, which falls short of a thorough characterization, but that may be because the reader understands Quinn through his musical speech (the columns). Overall, Tashjian’s characterization is sparse and flimsy; many secondary characters only serve to drive the plot along, leaving them with flat personalities. Brett Marshall, the draft dodger that arrives in Laurel Canyon and complicates Quinn’s life, barely touches the surface on reasons why he doesn’t want to go to war. Tashjian relies too much on the obvious and generic reasons against the war. For instance, she completely dismisses the nation’s complicated attitudes towards patriotism and duty during this time period. Despite it being a first person narrative, Tashjian could have worked better with how the characters interact with each other, giving the story a more insightful, complete, and tangible view of an unstable period. On the contrary, Tashjian’s characters are too generic, embodying a very general notion of fear, love, and friendship.
Most of the novel runs as a “day in the life of” story, running down the typical teen boy conflicts like finding a girlfriend, coping with family problems, and forming a band. Tashjian ineffectively attempts to break the formula with the supernatural (though very minor) voice of the dead Jimi Hendrix, Janis Joplin, and Jim Morrison, otherwise known as Club 27. Club 27’s insertion into the story doesn’t make sense; first, there is no explanation as to why these particular voices choose to speak to Quinn; second, even for a supernatural encounter, Quinn’s very superficial encounter is unbelievable. Tashjian strongly characterizes Quinn as a music fanatic who lives everyday through music, yet, he never seeks a more profound and musical connection with Club 27.
Besides the war theme Tashjian also focuses on music, the strongest agent in the story – the only character, other than Quinn, that facilitates action and resolution. According to Quinn, “Rock and Roll can change the world and save your life – and that’s just for starters.” A little bit dramatic, no? Still, Tashjian effectively connects music with social events and Quinn’s life. Quinn gives the reader playlists that resonate with the situation just witnessed, leaving pause for reflection and questions about how music can help you realize and understand complicated and bigger things than yourself. Certainly, the music fan will appreciate the music lists and references to rock icons that pass through the book. The enchanting presence of music never leaves from the beginning. Most of the times, music fills a much larger space than the war, connecting people and teaching them about life’s difficult and blissful moments.