Monday, May 12, 2014

Noggin by John Corey Whaley

It’s the old, old story: boy meets girl, boy falls for girl, boy develops fatal illness, boy has head surgically removed and cryogenically frozen, boy is re-animated five years later with a donor body, girl has moved on.

Much as Andrew Smith did in his recent Grasshopper Jungle and David Levithan did in Every Day, John Corey Whaley has, in his new young adult novel Noggin, taken a thoughtful and funny story about teenagers struggling with the question of “Who the hell am I supposed to be?” and stitched it skillfully to a much more literal crisis of identity. (Though the comparisons only go so far: Compared to Grasshopper Jungle, Noggin and Every Day have far fewer giant copulating insects.) And why not?

Joss Whedon once said something (I’m broadly paraphrasing here) about how Buffy worked because many teens often feel like they are surrounded by dark forces, and their changing selves sometimes feel like they are possessed by demons, and high school itself can sometimes feel like a hellmouth. So why not make these metaphors literal? Why not take all the teenage (and, let's be honest, adult) anxieties about changing bodies and changing identities and make them literal?

In Noggin, that literal change happens to sixteen-year-old Travis Coates. Travis made the decision to have his head removed from his dying body and cryogenically frozen in the hopes that, sometime in the future, science would allow him to be brought back in a healthy vessel. Travis never really thought it could work, and if it did, surely that future would be, well, far in the future. Only it did work, and five years later, the future is now.

But Travis finds himself in a less than spectacular now. What for him felt like only a short nap was five years for his best friend, his girlfriend, and his parents, five years fraught with grief and the grievances of the living.  Travis has been re-animated in a new and improved body, but he doesn’t find his “new” life to be an improvement. He wants to return to his old life, only to find that, much like his old body, it no longer exists.

It’s a shame my high school seniors finished our class before I finished this novel, because I thought of them often as I read. They share with Travis this anxiety about who they are and who they should be, and this formidable cocoon of nostalgia and the fervent desire to hold on to those they love.

Whaley showed enormous promise in his debut novel, Where Things Come Back, and now he has come back and fulfilled that promise with Noggin, an affecting story about holding on and moving on, and finding that elusive balance between the two.

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