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Life, Life, and Masturbation: The Alex Crow

The Alex CrowThe Alex Crow, Andrew Smith
Dutton, March 2015
Reviewed from ARC and ebook editions

Last year, Andrew Smith wrote a book that had: weird science, boys who talk about masturbation, an incredibly strong voice, and strange animals created by the aforementioned weird science.

Love it or hate it, we couldn’t stop talking about it.

So why is The Alex Crow, which could also be described as a book with weird science, boys who talk about masturbation, an incredibly strong voice, and strange animals created by the aforementioned weird science, making so little ripple?

Backlash against Smith’s problematic writing of women? (It’s not better here, exactly, but used as part of the absurdism and thus ameliorated.) The fact that he JUST received a Printz honor? A less astounding package?

Or does The Alex Crow suffer because it feels like it’s not original, even though the thing that makes it seem less original is the same author’s work?

Full disclosure: I’m not sure how I feel about this book, emotionally or critically (although I am more certain on the critical side). In at least some aspects it’s better than Grasshopper Jungle, but I do think it suffers from the inevitable comparison; I keep thinking about Paper Towns, the book I still think is John Green’s best. In that case, because the later book took many elements we’d already encountered as readers in an earlier work (Alaska), the later, more polished book had a certain been there-done that effect on many readers that made them feel less passion about it — and if there’s no passion, it’s hard for a book to get a lot of serious buzz, much less great critical insight or recognition. This might be a book that suffers from that same reworking of themes and ideas by a single author; it doesn’t have quite the same spark when it isn’t brand new. But is newness really the important thing? I think we prize it sometimes to the detriment of recognizing better work. Regardless, I do think that has been a huge factor in the relatively small splash being made by this book.

(Ok, so in fairness four stars ain’t nothing. But in terms of actual people I know, this just isn’t the book on people’s lips.)

So now that I’ve talked about why I suspect no one else seems to be talking about this one, let’s talk about what’s done right with The Alex Crow.

It’s absurd, in ways that require imagination, control, and a desire to shed light on very real issues. Smith is a master of absurd scenarios that he twists to purpose. Two boys, one just recently arrived in the United States after a year of horrors in a war torn country “on the other side of the world” (unnamed, deliberately nebulous, and archetypal rather than realistic) are sent to a camp for technology-addicted teen boys. Said camp has a doctor who advocates for the extinction of the male species (which, on the evidence presented at Camp Merrie-Seymour and on the Arctic expedition woven throughout the main narrative, might be a good idea) and is run by a scientific outfit who operate in decidedly troubling ways (unethical, undisclosed human experimentation, for one).

It’s got voice. Does Ariel sound way too much like Cobie and Max (and also Austin and Finn)? Definitely. Might this be how Andrew Smith talks? Possibly (I’ve never met him). So what? It’s a very distinct style, laced with meaning and carefully controlled so that even if all those boys sound in some ways the same (syntax is hard to disguise), they are also each themselves. Plus I admire the use of repeated imagery (life and death, family, control and power, and the question of what can and should last, from crows to boys to stories to governments), and the way it only rarely calls attention to itself.

It’s original. Talking crows? That entire bizarre Leonard Fountain story? Crazy. And it’s undercut by some very serious questions (who has the right to make decisions? What price freedom? Is science responsible? Does family mean sharing burdens?)

Of course, it’s also flawed. Just as the thematic scope becomes apparent, Ariel’s narration makes it overt, which makes that rich scope seem a bit mawkish and simplistic. The three separate strands fit together like puzzle pieces but don’t always reflect deeper meanings on one another. Lots of things are left hanging (like the bit where — major spoiler — Ariel is a biodrone, and possibly a bioweapon). The novel jam-packed with ideas and insanity but not always balanced, and a lot of Leonard’s story in particular seemed there for cheap laughs. Finally, while Ariel’s home country is, as I said, clearly archetypal, I definitely felt a discomfort at the depiction, because the thing about archetypes is that they are types, and types are reductive.

Probably, for all that the RealCommittee is really looking at the year in a vacuum, this book will suffer in the awards — as it seems to have done in general conversation — for the existence of Grasshopper Jungle. That’s too bad, because there’s a lot here worth discussing (both laudatory and not — see Jason Reynold’s review in the Times for even more on both sides), and while I’m not going to push this as the best of the best, it certainly deserves to be in the conversation.

(I really really want to conclude this review with some sort of terrible Max-ism, but I’m not creative enough. Because his bizarre and unending collection of euphemisms for masturbation made me laugh — and groan — every time.)

About Karyn Silverman

Karyn Silverman is the High School Librarian and Educational Technology Department Chair at LREI, Little Red School House & Elisabeth Irwin High School (say that ten times fast!). Karyn has served on YALSA’s Quick Picks and Best Books committees and was a member of the 2009 Printz committee. She has reviewed for Kirkus and School Library Journal. She has a lot of opinions about almost everything, as long as all the things are books. Said opinions do not reflect the attitudes or opinions of SLJ, LREI, YALSA or any other institutions with which she is affiliated. Find her on Twitter @InfoWitch or e-mail her at karynsilverman at gmail dot com.


  1. I’m trying to think why I haven’t been excited about reading this one, I’ve checked it out several times but have always returned it in favor of reading other things. I think it’s a conglomeration of not liking Grasshopper Jungle, exhaustion over the controversy surrounding Andrew Smith, and being way more excited for Stand-Off as far as 2015 Andrew Smith novels go. I will get to it, I just haven’t read anything that makes me enthusiastic to start.

    • Karyn Silverman says

      I am so not excited for Stand-Off. I think if I never need to read about Ryan Dean again I’ll be a happier person.

    • Karyn Silverman says

      Also. I have a theory about Smith and his weird writing vs his almost normal writing. It seems like Winger and maybe 100 Sideways Miles appealed to one group of readers, while Grasshopper Jungle and Alex Crow appealed to another (the one who liked Marbury Lens too). Smith has a lot of tics, so to speak, in his writing, and in the weird stuff I can take it, but not in the more realistic works. This is based on a small but vocal sample size of readers and the fact that mostly everyone in my random sample (mostly librarians, a few students) seems to like one set of books or the other but not both.

      • aw, I like Winger. It’s not a favorite by any means, but I enjoyed it enough to be curious about the sequel (curious is probably a better word than excited). The only two Smith novels I’ve read are Winger and Grasshopper Jungle, so I can’t speak to your theory, but it makes sense to me!

  2. I haven’t read this one myself because it did feel too similar to Grasshopper Jungle and I have too many books vying for my attention.

    I just wanted to say I think it’s so interesting to see this compared (rightly I think) to Paper Towns by John Green. While Smith has already had more than his share of backlash, I keep wondering if it will get to a point where, although still popular, readers/librarians will have reached a saturation point in terms of his work. Which is something I’ve noticed for the past year or maybe even longer when it comes to John Green.

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