This book. This book! I loved it. Also I hated it. It has amazing characters, and then it has crimes against female characters. It’s A Tale of Two Cities for me on this one — this book contains multitudes and also contradictions galore. It probably deserves an award, except when it doesn’t.
There’s a reason I’ve been dragging my feet on writing this review. Actually, reasons. Lots of them. This is an extraordinarily impressive book. Except when it isn’t. ARGH!
Let’s get the crazy part out of the way first.
The premise and plot are just insane. Acid-tripping insane. This is unlike anything else out there (and when I consider this alongside Marbury Lens, I think I am really glad not to live in Andrew Smith’s mind). That’s good. Original is good, and original that makes you think, which is what this craziness does, is even better.
Whether it goes anywhere, I can’t say. I’ve read it twice now. I’ve annotated “the shit out of it”, as Austin would say. Every time I thought I had something, Austin spelled it out for me a few/dozen/hundred pages down the line, which made me think I didn’t have anything at all except a smug self-satisfied egotistical narrator making sure readers didn’t miss what he had to say. On the other hand, Austin is not the author, so it’s maybe still an impressive act of writing, even if in the end the smart statements and portentous soundbites and the meditation on history are all just a bunch of blather. Because Austin is talking about his own story, not history. He’s convinced that he is the center of everything and he’s constructing a narrative to support that.
So let’s talk about voice. The voice is amazing. It’s specific and peculiar and yet strangely plausible and seems real, inasmuch as any voice narrating the end of the world thanks to massive people-eating bugs can be real. It’s repetitive and recursive and redundant, but with panache. It paints a picture of the tale teller that is quite vivid — so much so that I find myself capable of quite a lot of dislike for him. He becomes more selfish and self-aggrandizing in terms of the centrality of his history to the story he is telling as the novel goes on, which I want to believe is a response to trying to make sense of a world gone mad, except he’s narrating the whole thing from a point after the fact and so I don’t know that he would show change in that subtle of a manner. He also starts making things up, sometime after the bugs hatch — all the stuff about the Vice President and testicles is clearly unsubstantiated.
Still, it’s a very effective and audacious voice and it’s the thing I love most about this one. Also Austin’s bizarre all roads converge on me theories, while irritating in some ways, are narratively unique and interesting. Props for voice and style, is what I’m saying, and even the questions I have about the shifts (from truth to lies, from history to me-story) are intriguing, although maybe on a third read I would decide the shift is a flaw.
Also design: this is a great package.
Plot? Well, even putting aside the acid-trippiness, I think there are a few holes, but who knows. I don’t think Austin is actually a reliable narrator so any holes can just as easily be attributed back to voice.
From a writing perspective, I find this on the whole impressive in a perplexing way.
But then there’s the what it’s saying, and I find myself with a lot of issues.
The women: Shann is smart and fierce and a total doormat who exists only so Austin’s sperm can make a new baby for whom Austin can reclaim those syllables in his name. Austin’s mom is wife, mother, sister: we never hear any family story from her side. Only the Polish side, the male side, matters. Robbie’s mom is a hyper-sexualized figure who seems to exist mostly so that there can be another baby in Eden. And Shann’s mom is only as useful as her nursing degree. We also have Eileen Pope (public lice, has sex on a ratty couch, becomes a horny bug); the ugly sex ed teacher who commits suicide; and the hookers with the hearts of gold who partially deflower Austin’s brother in a hotel, a small arc that I found particularly unlikely and misogynistic. Maybe this is all Austin’s biases again, or maybe it’s authorial. I don’t know. And it doesn’t matter for the Printz, unless it’s actually the third possibility — lousy writing. Short of asking the author, we can’t know, but I could imagine a committee conversation that concludes that the weak female characters are the result of writing weaknesses, not a statement about the narrator’s attitudes; I can’t find evidence in the text to make a case that this is Austin and not either author or writing.
There’s also a slight strand of racism, but I think that is Austin and deliberate and not weak writing, so although I didn’t like it, that shouldn’t make a difference for award consideration.
And finally there’s the way that Austin gets to have his cake and eat it too at the expense of LITERALLY the rest of the world, or at least North America. Is it an adolescent male fantasy, and if so, whose and why?
This is a book I will keep thinking about (sometimes, admittedly, with frustration), and in the end that kind of effect on readers is worth quite a lot when it comes to the Printz. It’s also a head-scratcher, genre-defier of a book, and that can also serve a text well. Although in this case, I could see it cutting the opposite way — how do you even begin a coherent discussion of this one?
And on top of all that, Smith has had a real dynamo of a writing year, and 100 Sideways Miles — by all accounts a more comprehensible and also very well-written book — might make Grasshopper Jungle the also ran.
So many questions! So many possibilities! And no answers. I just want someone to sit me down and explain this book to me.