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Highly Illogical Behavior
Humans expect a lot from each other. We like to think that we’re autonomous beings, when in reality, our choices are frequently motivated and influenced by others. In John Corey Whaley’s latest novel, he once again explores the interplay between a teen boy, his parents, and two friends (one guy, one girl). Although the title, with its nod to a certain Vulcan, may suggest science-fiction to some of you nerds out there (and I mean me), Highly Illogical Behavior is firmly grounded in the reality of human relationships; specifically, what happens when the fulfillment of one person’s ambitions or needs means the suppression of another’s.
Whaley’s third book is on my personal shortlist of 2016 favorites. His command of voice is his greatest strength here, which is unsurprising if you’ve read his previous work. What’s notable is that his characters are wonderfully messy in a fairly simple plot. The story offers the right amount of structure for Whaley to explore mental illness, friendship, and family (among other themes) through the interactions of his characters.
Writing from dual perspectives—agoraphobic teen, Solomon Reed and Lisa Praytor, the girl who wants to cure him, so she can win a scholarship—Whaley presents readers with two characters who have situated the happiness of their future life in a specific place. For Solomon that place is home, which he hasn’t left in three years; while Lisa wants to get into the second-best psychology program at a college across the country. For all of their differences, Solomon and Lisa are both people who believe that if they can control their world, nothing bad can ever happen. Of course, Whaley chips away at this idea. He does this by simply exploring what happens when you put two people with opposing goals together. This is drama 101, and Highly Illogical Behavior feels like a chamber play with its hyper focus on a handful of characters in one main location, Solomon’s home.
Whaley has previously made teen fears and anxieties literal—in Noggin, a boy’s friend and girlfriend literally grow up faster than him when his head is frozen and reattached on a different body after a few years of being dead. Here, Solomon’s world is physically small, yet, an entire universe of new possibilities open to him through his friendships with Lisa and her boyfriend Clark. The dynamic between the three is constantly shifting and pushing each of them to evolve as a result.
Solomon and Lisa change the most from their friendship. But this isn’t a schmaltzy, “friends-fix-everything” story. With her ulterior motive to meeting Solomon, Lisa broke his trust before their relationship even began. When he finds out the original plan behind her visits, he isn’t sure that he’ll ever forgive her, but a late-story crisis forces Solomon to rely on Lisa and Clark, bringing the three back together. At the end of the novel, it’s not clear if he fully forgives but we know that he let her back into his life, which suggests that Solomon decided that a life shared with other people means occasionally accepting their bad decisions, even after they’ve hurt us.
This conclusion feels earned because the characters support this view of friendship as imperfect. As the third wheel whose relationship with Solomon eventually becomes closer than Lisa’s, Clark is fascinating, even though he’s mostly inscrutable. We see him through Solomon and Lisa’s eyes, who each want different things from him. Solomon falls in love with him after they become good friends, while Lisa seems to need Clark for his companionship and unflagging support. To them, Clark is endlessly good, so that’s the character we see. There’s a trope of handsome boys being awkward weirdos on the inside that is used with Clark, but I see this as an extension of the fact that we see him through the lens of two characters who idealize him.
The dual voices are, in fact, third person limited. It’s a mostly neutral tone, but in the early chapters, the unseen narrator isn’t necessarily sympathetic to Lisa’s ambitions. She is introduced as a type A, overachiever, a person we’ve all known. The subtext however is that she’s the seemingly perfect girl in class who’s also a bit cold-hearted (she doesn’t allow her gorgeous boyfriend to take her to see the sunset). In Lisa’s sections, third person makes it hard for a reader to empathize with her, which isn’t a flaw per se, because it also highlights that her plan to cure Solomon is misguided and bound to blow up in her face. The tone is certainly different from Solomon’s sections, in which the narration is so accurate and clear about what it’s like to live with anxiety, one can’t help but be on his side immediately. I believe that this funny, smart boy hasn’t left the house in three years because the descriptions of his panic attacks and recursive, looped thinking put me inside Solomon’s head, making it easy to understand him.
The more that I think about this novel, the more I get out of it. The theme that’s sticking in my mind at the moment is how your world can be geographically small, but rich when you have strong and meaningful bonds with family and friends. It’s not about where you are, but who you’re with. So many coming-of-age stories are about leaving home to expand one’s understanding of the world, but in this novel, Whaley presents a contrasting and valid viewpoint. This isn’t a romanticization of Solomon’s agoraphobia because it’s clear that he’s growing and willing to change, but that he cannot fix his problems in a single summer.
As I mentioned at the top of my review, Highly Illogical Behavior is one of my favorites this year. It’s a heart and head book for me, so I’m going to keep my fingers and toes crossed for this one to appear in the winner’s circle come January.
A couple stray thoughts:
- Regarding plot: I did like that the pool was Solomon’s idea prior to him ever meeting Lisa or Clark. He’d been inside for three years and was already starting to contemplate the future. He is not a passive actor in his recovery. Also wonderful is that Lisa and Clark don’t “fix” him. He makes small steps and that’s enough.
- The “Clark, is he gay or not?” subplot maybe gets more time than necessary. Less angst about the guessing would have allowed the jealousy dynamics between Lisa and Solomon to shine through more.
- The Star Trek of choice in the novel is The Next Generation which narratively, makes sense given the time in which the story’s set and allows Whaley to utilize the holodeck as an important set piece and metaphor, but I was a teensy bit sad that TOS didn’t play a larger role. Obviously, this isn’t a literary critique in any way, only a fangirl’s minor disappointment.
About Joy Piedmont
Joy Piedmont is a librarian and technology integrator at LREI - Little Red School House & Elisabeth Irwin High School. Prior to becoming a librarian, Joy reviewed and reported for Entertainment Weekly’s PopWatch. She reviews for SLJ and is the President of the Hudson Valley Library Association. When she’s not reading or writing about YA literature, she’s compulsively consuming culture of all kinds, learning to fly (on a trapeze), and taking naps with her cat, Oliver. Find her on Twitter @InquiringJoy, email her at joy dot piedmont at gmail dot com, or follow her on Tumblr. Her opinions do not reflect the attitudes or opinions of SLJ, LREI, HVLA or any other initialisms with which she is affiliated.
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