Jodi Picoult will go to the ends of the earth to confront her readers with unsettling truths they'd rather not face. Case in point: while researching The Tenth Circle, her 13th and most adventurous novel yet, the intrepid author huddled inside an Eskimo hut in the dead of winter with a frozen moose thawing on the sideboard to glean the ancient Inuit wisdom necessary to breathe life into a story about . . . date rape?
Picoult's fans have come to expect the unexpected from the Hanover, New Hampshire, mother of three whose topical novels explore how family relationships bend and twist under the strain of an ethical or moral crisis. Her every-parent's-nightmare fears have led her to peek into some pretty dark closets: teen suicide (The Pact), stigmata (Keeping Faith) and child abduction (Vanishing Acts).
But in The Tenth Circle, she outdoes herself by somehow managing to combine Eskimos, comic books, teen sex and Dante Alighieri with a straight face. Put that way, the audacity of it tickles even the author.
"Let's see, Dante, comic books, Alaska—go talk among yourselves! Find the connection!" she roars. "It's a seemingly unrelated group of topics but they all somehow get together."
It is a testament to Picoult's storytelling prowess that the reader never pauses to examine the parts, so immersed are we from the very first page in this powerful, believable and yes, frequently uncomfortable tale.
The Tenth Circle is both the novel's title and the name of the comic book drawn by protagonist Daniel Stone, a comic book illustrator and stay-at-home dad whose wife Laura teaches Dante's Inferno at the local college in Bethel, Maine. Daniel, who grew up as the only white boy in an Eskimo village, was a rebellious youth. Now he funnels his anger into his comic book alter ego, the Immortal Wildclaw. As the novel progresses, so does his comic book in progress, several pages of which appear at intervals throughout the novel, giving us insight into Daniel's Dante-esque descent into hell.
"The primary reason the graphic novel is there is because Daniel is not a man of words, he's a man of art," Picoult explains. "His character is not going to come to you from what he can reveal to you in words; it's going to come from what he can reveal to you in pictures."
The Stones' pride and joy is 14-year-old Trixie, who has just been dumped by Jason, the captain of the hockey team. In a desperate attempt to win Jason back, Trixie attends an unsupervised party at which sexual activity is the basis for party games. Drugs enter the picture and by evening's end, Trixie accuses Jason of date rape. What happens next takes more surprising turns than an arctic winter.
If you've never heard of adolescent sex games like Rainbow and Stoneface, brace yourself—this ain't Spin the Bottle. Picoult got the 411 on "hooking up" from her teenage babysitters, and was as shocked as most parents will be at what she learned.
"I live in a pretty small place and if these things are happening here, guess what? They're happening everywhere. All kids now are in the random hookup stage; if you go and ask your average teenager, that's what's cool: not to have a boyfriend but to do some kind of sexual act and then just dismiss it. There is this stripping away of honest emotions that scares the hell out of me. They don't engage and they don't connect. If they do, it's like Velcro: you pull it together and then you rip it apart and there's nothing even semi-permanent."
Picoult hopes the party scene will shake up other parents. "I would much rather they be horrified and start talking about it with their kids than go on pretending or thinking that it's not happening."
For advice on the comic book, which she wrote and integrated into the story with the help of artist Dustin Weaver, Picoult consulted her 12-year-old son.
"I was never a 13-year-old boy, so I didn't read comic books, ever," she says. "For me, the story I was telling was how there is good and evil in everybody and how that plays out, and that's what every good comic book is about. So it was the right venue for it. I wasn't going to have some guy painting Impressionist art."
To bring the disparate elements together required the wintertime trip to a remote Alaskan village, both to obtain the necessary background on Daniel and the details of dog-sledding that figure into the plot. In January 2004, Picoult hopped a cargo plane full of sled dogs to Bethel, Alaska, still two hours south of her destination.
"All I'm going to say is, I wore every single thing I had in my bag at once and I still needed to borrow clothes," she recalls. "It was minus 38 degrees without the wind chill; with wind chill, it was something like 75 below."
In the village, besides a thawing moose, she met with an elder named Moses who shared a native belief that became central to The Tenth Circle. "They believe that at any moment, a man can become an animal and an animal can become a man," she says. "That played beautifully into comic book culture as well as the general nature of human rage."
Picoult is enjoying reader reaction to her novel/graphic novel experiment.
"Some read it in exactly the order that it appears in the book, some want to read the entire book and then go back and read the comic book, others do it the other way around," she says. "If you're looking for a trademark Picoult novel that's going to make you think about right and wrong and moral and ethical issues, that's there, too. This is kind of like Picoult-plus!"
Jay MacDonald writes from Oxford, Mississippi.