I’ve never read an Adam Rapp book before, so I volunteered for this one. Volunteered! I said, sure, I will read it. Oh, you guys. I mean, I thought I was prepared. I tried to be ready. And this book was exactly what I thought it would be, so…I guess that means I was as ready and prepared as I could be? Maybe? I might also be a little broken inside, though.
So: Bounce, Orange, and Wiggins are three middle schoolers who meet in detention. Bounce is the ring leader who provides drugs from her rich, successful, and usually absent parents. Her latest plan: to kidnap a four year old (whom they call the Frog), chain her in the basement, and go door-to-door raising money for her rescue. The Frog spends her time in the basement playing a video game that gives the novel its title. Orange is happy to go along with any idea Bounce has — and she has more of them as the book goes on. Wiggins is uncomfortable with their actions, but isn’t quite sure what to do.
This is exactly what you would expect from Adam Rapp: dark, disturbing, memorable, horrific, and beautifully written. Told in only 152 pages, there’s not a wasted word or image. Rapp tells the story in the voices of the four characters. Bounce is highly verbal, extremely sarcastic, bitingly angry. Orange and Wiggins sound a bit similar at first: muddled, defensive, hungry for attention and love. As Wiggins grows more disturbed through the course of the novel, however, his unease manifests in his increasingly damaged voice. Frog’s fragmented but poetic chapters are haunting, although the game descriptions seem a little too difficult for a four year old to play. (However, I consider that a minor criticism; it fits so well thematically and adds such an effective mirror to this already horrific story that I can’t imagine the book without it.) While this is a book that hurts to read, it’s also beautifully written.
I have to give props for the completely unlikeable characters Rapp has created. They are…well, they are vile. But it’s also not really that simple. They are also fiercely loyal to each other (Orange and Wiggins are; Bounce is something else again). The three teenagers don’t have anyone else looking out for them. Their teachers don’t even seem to see them (or are unable to help them). Their parents are trapped in their own stories and have no energy or ability to help. Bounce thinks of Orange and Wiggins as her own pet projects; she calls herself their “big momma River Guard” and prides herself on how maternal she is. Orange is grateful for the attention, drugs, and sexual favors Bounce offers. Wiggins is prepared to go along with terrible things because he truly has nothing else. It’s just not possible to write Orange and Wiggins off as characters; they do terrible things, yes, but they are also in terrible, tragic situations.
Bounce is a bit harder to grasp as a character. She is a terrifying emptiness, really. She lives in a big house that is essentially empty. She has no problem taking care of her “two wildebeests” and, it seems at the end, will have no problem leaving them for a posh private school. Her admissions essay chapter where she describes herself is so chilling and brutal and beautiful that I am not sure I could stop quoting it in this review once I start. But here; I’ll try:
“This girl pushes nature to an uncomfortable limit because she is not satisfied with what she is shown in school, on TV, on the Internet…She wants to know the shapes and odors of the world…She wants to know the way meat moves through the packaging house. The way the animal body contains liquids and solids. The way muscle attaches to tendons. Ligaments. She wants to know these things from the smells she acquires on her hands.”
The plan that Bounce hatches — to kidnap the Frog and get money — is nebulous, bizarre. Bounce could, presumably, just get the money from her parents. Or sell the pills they leave around the house. The details we see don’t make any sense, the logic of the plan doesn’t quite add up, and that makes it all the more frightening.
I am undecided about the ending. It’s stark and beautiful…and it also just stops. Well. It’s not an arbitrary ending, but there’s enough still up in the air or unclear that it feels unsatisfying. On the other hand, I’m not really sure where else this story could possibly have gone, and what else I expected from it. It manages to feel both unsatisfying and authentic. (Is that even a thing?)
You guys, I am running out of new ways to say “horrifying” in this review, and so I’m leaving it to the comments. I think this is a strong book and a likely contender, although I’m not convinced that the ending quite works. I also am not ready to revisit it any time soon. Perhaps you can bring some clarity to the discussion.