There is no particular type of person so easy to make fun of as the teen or twenty-something man who takes himself really seriously. And yet, despite Ali Shaw basically falling into that category, imao, I don’t want to make fun of this book. I knew this guy, a while back, who was an emo musician surfer, and he was also so handsome that people apparently didn’t tell him he was wrong very often. This one time, when I first met him, he told me that Bright Eyes was the new Bob Dylan. That ended up ruining Bright Eyes for me because, while Mr. Eyes is sweet, he’s nowhere near the new Bob Dylan (I say with great distain). The reason I bring this up at all is that I think this book basically falls into the Bright-Eyes category. If young men rediscovering emotion is your thing, then I think this book would have a lot of really wonderful moments for you. Even if it’s not, I think this is basically a brave, and sometimes pretty, first-attempt at a novel.
You could mostly gag me with men rediscovering emotion, but, at the same time, isn’t it lovely? I feel like society is this giant middle school party where all the girls and boys were standing against opposite walls. But then the girls started running away from sap and the boys started running toward sap and it’s made this giant mosh pit that is kind of nice. Women learning to express emotion with their fists and men learning to express emotion with their words. Still, at some point, gag me.
So, I don’t really know what to do with this book. I felt a strange detachment from it, like I was reading all the characters from behind a two-way mirror. But, then, there were these crazy moments where something personal and painful directly from my life was there on the page, as though really it was Ali Shaw seeing me
though a two-way mirror, not me seeing his characters. The separation was always there, though. Somehow the words of much of the story were phenomenally accurate
to these very personal experiences I have had, but the emotion and actions that would have humanized the statements were really foreign to me.
For example, I have this friend right now who is always telling me how nerdy she is and how she’s happy to just curl up alone at her house with homework. The thing is that she dresses all in pink, almost always wears sparkly makeup, is addicted to exercising, and dressed as “MTV spring break” for Halloween last year. But the other thing is that she really is
nerdy and curls up with homework alone all the time. So, the way she describes herself is accurate, but the way the truth of it looks is so foreign to me that it feels untrue. Those were the types of inconsistencies I felt in the story. I had a similar reaction, on a much smaller scale, to the movie 500 Days of Summer
. It seemed like the kid was technically correct in recounting the words the girl said, but that he missed who she was and how she felt entirely.
But, I’m kind of freaking out about the way all of this played out in this book, and there’s no way to spare you from an over-share in talking about it, so close your eyes ye faint of heart. Keep in mind that I’m choosing the least
personal example of the weird things from my life that Shaw described with this intense accuracy. The book is about a boy who lives on an island and has social anxiety disorder, depression, and an extreme fear of being touched. He meets this girl who is turning into glass from the feet up, and **SPOILER** as she slowly disappears, she teaches him to sort of reappear. **END SPOILER** The way Shaw describes her turning into glass is so painfully real, though. My mom died of amyotrophic lateral sclerosis (Lou Gehrig’s Disease) over the course of about eight years. When it started, she just lost feeling in her foot, and it slowly traveled through the rest of her body. It was exactly like her body was turning to glass, and in exactly the way Shaw describes in this book. He was horribly accurate.
So, every time he described the process of Ida turning into glass, it really resonated with me in this completely sickening way, but Ida herself, as a character, was where he lost me. This was not a huge problem in reading the story, but I think it’s good to be prepared when getting into it (more on this in a minute).
I was raised that women are evil, and there was a cartoon I saw when I was little that symbolizes this to me. The cartoon started out with a big, strong man standing next to a petite, little woman. As the frames went along, the woman got bigger and the man got smaller, until the last frame where there was just a coffin sitting next to a big, fat woman. Nice, huh? There’s something of the reverse of this happening in this book that doesn’t really sit right with me, but at the same time seems insanely accurate. **SPOILER AGAIN** All of the women disappear as the men learn to define themselves. It is compassionate in execution, and it resonates with me for all the times I feel like I have seen women disappear to their husbands and families. But, it still seems like a mistake to write that circumstance into a fantasy novel with nothing to redeem it. **END SPOILER**
(That reminds me of some confusion I have: assuming this book is actually fantasy, as my library labels it, I truly do not understand the line between fantasy and magical realism. I thought fantasy had to have elves, dwarves, or giants. Does anyone have working definitions for the two genres?)
Really, the problems I have with this book, like the above, are technical, but not insubstantial, and the biggest one is Ida’s character. It seems extremely unlikely, and undesirable, that a woman turning into glass would want to spend her painful illness teaching a shy photographer how to re-connect with the world. It seemed like a mistake to give Ida the glass illness, rather than Midas (the emo hero), and then write her as an ancillary character. She had the most potential to be an interesting character, but remained the least complex throughout. Shaw developed each of the men with more care, though they were less central characters. I don’t have a problem with characters being unrealistic (like the characters in Arrested Development
, for example, or all of Quentin Tarantino’s women. I love
all of them, even though none of them ring very true with my experiences. They’re more spectacular than life). But it kind of bugs me when male fantasies are of really boring or really creepy women. It felt like in his pretty successful attempt to be accurate and write what he knew, Shaw was reluctant to develop the women.
I think, actually, a lot of my trouble with the characters could be pretty easily fixed by developing the characters in the opposite direction of how Shaw presented them. For example, one character was introduced with a very touching description of his devotion to a woman who rejected him. Later, it turns out that this guy is a complete asshole, which made me feel betrayed as a reader. What if he was introduced as an asshole, and then Shaw revealed the background? That might be more conventional, but it would have worked better for me. The same was true with Ida. There was a beautiful scene about her, as a child, coming to terms with death, and for me that would have more successfully introduced her character than the physical description of her that Shaw used.
Throughout the book, Shaw juxtaposes beauty with ugliness in a really nice way. I think he has something to say about the incongruous brutality and delicacy of life that is really successful. That theme leads to a gratuitous scene where a teeny-tiny bull births a baby teeny-tiny bull, and that I could have done without. I was frustrated by, and even angry at, a lot of the character and story development, but I think it’s likely that any reader would feel differently about the story than any other reader. It was very domestic and personal in that way. It was beautiful and ugly and brutal and delicate. It's no Bob Dylan, though.