Monday, September 3, 2012

Everything You Need to Survive the Apocalypse by Lucas Klauss

There's a weird and uneasy aura that hangs over Lucas Klauss's Everything You Need to Survive the Apocalypse. There's parts where it seems to actually cohere together into what it wants to be (a novel about losing and regaining faith in something), and it's at its best when it does. But these moments are sandwiched so awkwardly between typical Male Coming of Age Novel tropes—some bland, some annoyingly stereotypical—that it's difficult to actually notice them. Which is a shame, because there's good potential here to explore faith in the space between the polarized opposites of hard-line atheism and hard-line evangelism, but it never commits. It doesn't even commit to letting the reader draw their own conclusions; instead it feels as though it evades drawing conclusions, forcing readers to do so, rather than it being a natural outgrowth of the story.

The setup is standard: Philip, track team slacker, meets Rebekah, who Philip thinks is "unconventionally hot", who appears to be amused by him, and who is also a member of the local "non-denominational" church. Rebekah invites Philip to their youth group meetings, which becomes a daunting task for Philip as he has to evade his atheist father (who separated from his now-deceased mother after she began attending this church). It's only after Philip starts going to the church that things get a little off-kilter for the book, as Philip undergoes an inexplicable, sudden, and relatively unbelievable conversion. The unbelievability of the conversion is somewhat addressed later in the book, but it's never given a satisfying conclusion, as even at the end of the book I felt that Philip was phoning in his own narrative lines on the subject, rather than feeling as though they came from genuine faith.

The supporting cast has equally bizarre shifts, especially Philip's dreaded track coach Ferret, who turns from demanding, obnoxious coach to this bizarre, semi-creepy father figure for Philip—again, the semi-creepiness is acknowledged later in the book, when Philip accuses Ferret of being gay, but then that introduces a new issue that never gets a satisfying conclusion.

What bothered me more than all this—as it's not really deal-breaking so much as puzzling, and makes the book good discussion group fodder—is that there's not a whole lot other than subject matter separating it from other contemporary realistic YA novels. Granted, contemporary realism isn't exactly my favorite genre, but neither the writing nor the voice jumped out at me as being noticeably different from other books I've read. And some parts felt thrown in to look more like a "boy book": Philip attends wild parties thrown by one of his friends with liberal quantities of liquor, but doesn't otherwise seem like the kind of character that would go to such parties, and his observation that girls don't care about "fantasy novels, computer games, and various horrible ways the Earth will be destroyed" is needless enforcement of a false stereotype; even the Dudliest Dude in high school knows a girl who's really into fantasy novels and video games, even if he just makes fun of her for it.

I'd really like to be able to recommend this book—so few YA novels deal explicitly with religion at all, and even fewer deal with the middle zone between extremes—but it never worked for me. With the dip into conservative evangelical Christianity, it's even harder to discern its audience—even liberal Christians, quasi-spiritual nontheists, and members of every other religion ever are likely to give it a miss over its not-quite-critical portrayal. It's worth a read, though, and it's definitely great for a long-form discussion.

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