Rules are for sissies. Yes, yes they are. Especially, I would say, in Young Adult fiction. All this hoo-ha and malarkey about people debating What is Young Adult lately - with so many grownups reading adventure fiction like The Hunger Games, why is one novel with a teen protagonist (let's just say Going Bovine) marketed to teens and why is another (call it Huge) marketed to adults - and as far as I'm concerned the fastest, funniest, most wrenching, most challenging stuff is YA and all the rest is non-age-specific genre fiction.
Mad at me yet? Read more!
That's right. Move P.C. Cast right down next to Laurell K. Hamilton; put Cecily von Ziegesar with Danielle Steel; and then move Ninth Life of Louis Drax and those dreadful books with the teen boy character that Michael Cera played in the movie into the teen section. Nick Twist. That character was Nick Twist. Man, there was a lot of boner talk in those books.
See, I personally don't want or need a book with a lot of boner talk. (Except The Downside of Being Up, that was a funny book.) But I am not a 14-year-old boy dealing with a thousand boners a day. This is why we have a Young Adult section: to put a spotlight on a bunch of books that not only have teenage protagonists, but which illuminate - or at least commiserate over - some aspect of being a young person, e.g.:
- Learning to navigate adult roles and feelings.
- Taking responsibility for something.
- Not taking responsibility for something.
- Trying to not be such an ass.
So that teenagers can find those books and take them home and get a little sympathy from characters who are facing some of the same crap as they are.
And you write a book like that, you're going to be breaking rules. There will be swearing and maybe drug use. Frank discussions evaluating the attractiveness of one's classmates and the disgustingness of oneself. Characters will arrive unannounced and un-backstory'ed. People will behave thoughtlessly and then get all defensive about it.
You get the feeling with the best YA fiction that the author is just going flat out. Taking chances. If it's funny, they're going to jack it up a little and make it funnier. Absurd? It should be more absurd, because to a teenager, quite a lot of everyday life seems absolutely absurd. Violence, pathos, weird loops of tangent - all these things will make a book seem to actually be a product of a teenaged character's brain. (See below, RE: Greg Gaines)
A lot of stuff currently shelved in the teen section is not like that. A lot of teen series fiction follows fairly strict rules - by definition, characters in series like The Vampire Diaries or Pretty Little Liars develop very little. The characters have not much in common with your average teen reader. If you look at it this way, books like the House of Night novels are in fact not YA. The Pretty Little Liars books are about being a teenager in the same way that Barbie is a teenaged fashion model. So that's why I say make a suspense/romance section for readers of all ages and stick all that genre stuff together.
This is a terrible idea, of course. This would ensure that a reader who loves escapist fiction would never accidentally pick up the strong literary YA novel that might have changed her life. The YA section would come to resemble the YA section of my youth, a few dusty shelves bearing copies of Go Ask Alice and Forever . . .. No, we have to keep the fluff in YA, and keep encouraging adults to look on those shelves for slightly romancey adventure fiction, and enjoy our thriving YA publishing market. Forget I said anything. Really. I'm not being sarcastic.
So... that was your diatribe for the day. I kind of got a little worked up there. Sorry about that. Especially since at the end I totally realized I was wrong. Heh. If I were Greg Gaines I might at this point groaningly insist that I punch my own self in the face. If I were sixteen like Greg is - and at the peak of my self-loathing, as Greg is - I would surely insist that you stop reading this blog post immediately.
Greg is a middle-class, middle-sized, medium-smart white Jewish kid who goes to a clique-infested public high school in Pittsburgh. At the beginning of this book, Greg suspects that he has no redeeming qualities. (At the end of the book, he is sure of this. No spoiler there, he tells you this in his Author's Note.) Greg's big ambition is not to get ketchup flicked at him. That's it. And in order to attain this goal, Greg has turned keeping his head down into not just an art form but in fact a way of life. His four-dimensional map of the school is in his head at all times as he trudges through it, being pleasant to everyone but never lingering in one group long enough to form what might be perceived as an alliance. Or in fact a friendship.
That's the Me. The Dying Girl is Rachel, a classmate with whom Greg is semi acquainted - from Hebrew school in 6th grade. Greg's mom forces Greg to spend time with Rachel to cheer her up once she's been diagnosed with leukemia, and he does. That's the plot of the book. Don't worry about it. By the way, Greg's mom - and her logic, and her tactics - gets several short chapters all her own, and boy does she deserve it.
Let's face it, all the characters in this book are spectacular. Greg's dad, a Carnegie Mellon Classics professor who doesn't work much and wears muu-muus and collects weird animal products to eat. Greg's cat, Cat Stevens. Greg's teacher Mr. McCarthy, who drinks pho from a thermos and pounds his chest whenever one of his students says anything smart. That guy actually may have been unconsciously modelled on my neighbor Matt, a former high school principal who is quite scary when enthused.
But the best. Oh my word the best new character in YA literature - IN LITERATURE AS A WHOLE let's just hand this young man the Oscar right now - has got to be Earl.
Earl doesn't even really make an appearance in Me and Earl and the Dying Girl until about page 75. For a while there I thought he would be this cryptic offscreen Greek chorus character - fulfilling his titular prominence only through gnomic, obscene text messages. I was a bit charmed by this idea. Until I met him.
Earl is a puny, enraged black kid from THE worst family in the school. He has like a half dozen half-brothers, all violent truants, and an invisible mom who drinks all the time. However, he and Greg find they have something in common when, at the age of eleven, they find themselves watching the Werner Herzog film Aguirre, the Wrath of God. And liking it. Loving it. Becoming inspired to film their own hommage, called Earl, the Wrath of God II.
Klaus Kinski as Aguirre in Aguirre, the Wrath of God. In about thirty seconds he's going to complete a no-look pass with that monkey, tossing it in the river. Watching that clip may shed more light on Me and Earl and the Dying Girl than this whole atrociously long review post will.
Greg provides descriptions of all of their film projects. Werner Herzog was just the beginning. Allow me to favor you with Greg's synopsis of one of their subsequent films, Apocalypse Later:
Apocalypse Later (dir. G. Gaines and E. Jackson, 2007). Again, not our best title. Once we found out what the apocalypse was, we thought that it was ridiculous that Apocalypse Now was not, in fact, about the End of the World. This movie can best be summed up like this:
- Earl, wearing a bandanna and holding a Super Soaker, demands to know when the apocalypse is happening.
- Offscreen, I tell Earl that the apocalypse is not for a while.
- Earl sits in a chair and does a lot of cussing.
So yeah. As befits a book about a girl dying of leukemia and the boy who tries to cheer her up, it is just as funny as hell. Read-it-aloud-to-your-friends funny. Upholstery endangering funny. Especially once Earl starts talking:
Here, Greg and Earl are brainstorming movie ideas while Earl is rummaging around in Greg's refrigerator looking for the weird food that Greg's father accumulates.
"Now what the fuck is this."
"No, no, don't eat that. That's dried cuttlefish. That's like Dad's favorite. He likes to wander around with part of it sticking out of his mouth."
"I'ma take a little bite."
"You can like nibble it once, but that's it."
"What do you think?"
"Man, this taste stupid. This taste like some kinda... undersea... urinal."
"It taste like dolphins and shit."
"So you don't like it."
"I did not say that."
"Yeah, it's like seventy-five percent dolphin scrotum, twenty-five percent chemicals."
"So you do like it."
"This is a dumb-ass piece of food."
Greg and Earl talk a little more about their movie, and then Greg says,
"Are you done eating that?"
"You shouldn't finish that. Dad's gonna want some."
"The hell he will."
"It's so nasty. Son, it's so nasty."
"Then why are you finishing it?"
"Takin a bullet."
I mean. Once I got my breath back, I had to just sit back and marvel. That is some tone-perfect dialogue. That is pushing the boy banter up to 11. That is taking some time on a little bitty scene, and not just for the sake of showing off... we get to loll about in the sea of contradictions that is Earl, and Earl's contradictory nature is key in this book.
- How can someone enthusiastically eat food that he believes tastes like a urinal at the bottom of the ocean?
- How can this warlike, filthy-mouthed kid who has not so much been raised as just... not killed by his family have more empathy than anybody else in the book?
- How can an unbelievably self-centered teenage boy actually be a good friend to a girl dying of cancer?
- How can an unbelievably self-centered teenage boy actually be affected by another person?
- How does a teenage girl die?
- What the hell kind of author kills off a teenage girl just to demonstrate that teenage boys often do not possess unexpected depths? Because, god, I love him for it.
Anyway. It's a rare item. Often when an author is this funny they can't carry a story. Or someone who attempts a sad story like this will collapse into dreary domestic horror. You know what I'm going to do? I'm going to compare it to Vonnegut. Yep. Brings to mind Vonnegut.
It also brings to mind a very brief list of recent YA novels that don't know (or don't care) how YA novels are supposed to act: Violence 101, The Freak Observer, Freak Magnet, Please Ignore Vera Dietz, I Love You, Beth Cooper. Can they all sit on a little Cool Dorks shelf together? I'm worried those bitches in the Clique novels are going to beat them up.
Coming out March 1 from Abrams.
There's this excellent interview with author Jesse Andrews that is all about the cover of the book on a YA book cover blog called That cover girl. It's a great cover, really, Abrams - super job - but I am just very amused that the interview is all about the cover.
Also, there's already going to be a damn movie of it. Screenwriter Dan Fogelman, who is not actor/screenwriter Dan Futterman, who wrote the screenplay to Capote and with whom my husband played rugby at Columbia, is going to co-write the screenplay with the author. And that sentence, as Greg Gaines might say, is a moron.