Geek Expectations

by Wardog

Wardog gets thematic in two reviews of geek-centric young adult novels. She also apologises for the pun.
Being a teenager. How much did that suck? But having put a fair span of years between the horrors of Then and the smug twenty-something complacency of Now, I feel just about brave enough to attempt some so-called young adult fiction (an awkward genre concept if ever there was one) and, as you'll see from the two I have chosen, it's pretty much a return to my geeky, insecure, socially inept roots. Only with more laughs.

Frank Portman's King Dork is quite simply a delight from start to finish. The book is narrated by the self-titled King Dork, Tom Henderson, "the brainy, freaky, oddball kid who reads too much, so bright that his genius is sometimes mistaken for just being retarded." As you might expect, he's pretty much at the bottom of the high school pecking order. He has only one friend, the equally nerdy Sam Hellerman; when they're not devising logos and album titles for their mostly imaginary band, they're basically trying to survive life at Hillmont High with all the attendant tedium and humiliation.

Of course, there's more to it than that. In fact, to quote directly: "it's actually kind of a complicated story, involving at least half a dozen mysteries, plus dead people, naked people, fake people, teen sex, weird sex, drugs, ESP, Satanism, books, blood, bubblegum, guitars, monks, faith, love, witchcraft, the Bible, girls, a war, a secret code, a head injury, the Crusades, some crimes, mispronunciation skills, a mystery woman, a devil head, a blow job, and rock and roll"

The narrative is extremely complex, interweaving several plots and mysteries, the most of serious of which involves Tom attempting to unravel the mystery his father's death using notes and clues scribbled in his old copy of The Catcher of the Rye. And, on the subject of Catcher, this book is simultaneously homage to and hatchet-job of that enduring classic of disaffected youth. Tom is ruthless in cataloguing its faults:
"The Catcher in the Rye is this book from the fifties. It is every teacher's favorite book. ... It changed their lives when they were young. As kids, they carried it with them everywhere they went. They solemnly resolved that, when they grew up, they would dedicate their lives to spreading The Word.

It's kind of like a cult.

They live for making you read it. When you do read it you can feel them all standing behind you in a semicircle wearing black robes with hoods, holding candles. They're chanting "Holden, Holden, Holden..." And they're looking over your shoulder with these expectant smiles, wishing they were the ones discovering the earth-shattering joys of The Catcher in the Rye for the very first time.

Too late, man. I mean, I've been around the Catcher in the Rye block. I've been forced to read it like three hundred times and don't tell anyone but I think it sucks."

But discovering his father's old copy of the book does, in fact, change his life: not only does it help him get some sort of closure on the issue of his father's death but the process of investigating it leads to several events and realisations that set Tom the first few steps down the path to growing up. The book itself owes much of its style and impact to Catcher: it's essentially a coming-of-age story and, although the language and attitudes found within have not yet dated like Holden's, the unreliable first person narration and the preoccupations and sensibility of the narrator are certainly reminiscent of Catcher. Like Holden, Tom is self-consciously cynical and jaded, but, just as we are expected to do with Holden, a reader must look beyond Tom's self-perception to find his innocence. However, unlike Holden, he never becomes a vehicle for the disappointed ideals of his creator Tom remains, ultimately, just a teenager, and his journey is a personal one.

The main strength of the book is Tom's narration I can't remember the last time a book made me laugh so hard. Open King Dork at pretty much any page and you'll find something you want to read aloud to someone else. This is not to suggest that King Dork is a light book: Frank Portman possesses a light touch, certainly, but there are no compromises in his grim and occasionally surreal portrait of adolescence, and the book enters some surprisingly dark territory near the end.

This darkness, however, sits a little awkwardly with the preceding action. If the book's main strength is Tom's narration, its weaknesses become apparent when it loses focus on that characterisation. The primary mystery plot has to be the least convincing aspect of the book, not only because its eventual solution is more a testament to the randomness of things than a coherent resolution but because it forces Tom to be something he is not i.e. the central character in a strained detective novel rather than a teenage boy living his life. Tom is absolutely at his best when coming up with new names for his band (some of my favourites include Ray Bradbury's Love Camel and We Have Eaten All The Cake), dreaming about girls, talking about his rock music, making observations on the behaviour of his peer group and applying a devastating mix of irony, idealism and cynicism to the education system. For example, in one of my favourite passages, Tom and Yasmynne Shmick spend the last ten minutes of their French lesson in "free conversation" in a scene that cannot be fail to have resonances for anyone who has suffered GCSE French.
'"I am sorry," said Yasmynne Shmick. "I am hungry. The young girls wear a very pretty dress. They eat and play soccer with the mother and the fathers. My name is Yasmynne. I am four years old."

"Ah, yes," I said. "The young people love to buy discs of pop music for dancing and for holiday-making." I chose my words very carefully. "They... they... My God, they drink beverages. It is true. My two friends Jean and Claude go to the cinema yesterday to view films. What a surprise. They eat. They are flowers."'

Despite its occasional laboured moments, King Dork is exquisite. I full intend to carry it with me wherever I go, and when I grow up I shall dedicate my life to spreading The Word

Barry Lyga's The Astonishing Adventures of Fanboy and Gothgirl by, contrast, was disappointing, although it was probably unfair of me to read it directly after King Dork because I would probably have been disappointed by a newly discovered Dickens story.

Fanboy lives with his newly pregnant mother and his "step-fascist." He is obsessed with comics and spends all his time creating his own, while being trying to avoid being bullied and tormented at school. His only friend, Cal, is a jock who shares his love of comics but won;t be seen with him public. Then he meets the antisocial rebel gothgirl who has my name, dammit who encourages both his artistic aspirations and his sense of exclusion.

It's reasonably well-written and characterised but it seems to lack the courage of its convictions. It toys with serious concepts like teen suicide and Columbine-like violence but never actually strays into tragedy, instead foreshadowing shadows that never show up. For example, Fanboy carries a bullet around with him and indulges in violent fantasies about those who bully him but, although it's quite prominent early on in the story, it's never really explored or challenged. Similarly, Gothgirl's failed suicide attempt is briefly mentioned but it does not seem to be presented as anything more serious than an adolescent cri-de-coeur. The treatment of both these elements is unsatisfying; it seems as though they are introduced primarily to shock and the lack of follow-through means they ring emotionally hollow.

The main problems with the novel lie with its characters. I didn't like either of them. Gothgirl is a sulking clich. I would, for once, just once, like to encounter a fictional goth who is not suicidal or psychotic. Especially if they're going to insist on calling them Kyra. Give Kyras some credit. And Fanboy whines. I understand that he has reason to mistrust and dislike his peers but how he whines! Unlike King Dork who possesses a sense of self-irony and a reasonable quotient of compassion, Fanboy is self-centred, self-obsessed and did I say he whined? Perhaps I'm getting old but I found his behaviour to his parents particularly offensive; again, it contrasts strongly against Tom's attitude to his hopeless hippie parents.

The book, however, does contain some nicely written moments:
"At some point, I realize that I probably look like an idiot, my head bent down, doing nothing, (apparently) staring down at my feet. I pretend to look for something in my backpack, but there's just school stuff and comic books in there. And God knows I don't want to pull out a comic book while Dina's sitting next to me! I wish I had something -- anything -- else to read, something that didn't scream "Geek!" at the top of its lungs and jump around in nerdly war paint. Like... I don't know... Hot Rod?"

And Fanboy's love of comics enlivens the narrative. He also makes a few digs at Neil Gaiman, which I very much appreciated. But otherwise it's a bit of a mediocre read.

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Comments (go to latest)
Guy at 09:57 on 2007-04-03
they are flowers hee hee i laughed and laughed i am using no punctuation or capitals in hopes that this will prevent the tragic eating of my comment a blow to my confidence in posting here that i might never recover from were it to occur
Wardog at 13:51 on 2007-04-03
Darling, it's a brilliant brilliant brilliant book - you *have* to read it (all that writing your thesis stuff, pah, drop it and read King Dork). Rami is working on the comment-eatingness. The ferretbrain doesn't mind basic punctuations but complicated things like ampersands and semi-colons seem to scare it. We haven't heard from you in far too long!
Rami at 23:24 on 2007-04-09
It does sound utterly brilliant, & very funny! By the way, comments should be fixed; do what you like with them!
Wardog at 09:54 on 2007-04-10
Yes, yes, it's fabulous - do read it
Guy at 15:58 on 2008-12-29
Well, a mere 20 months later, I *did* read it, and it *was* brilliant! Occasionally I had some trouble believing the protagonist was 14 - but maybe that's just a product of my sheltered upbringing. But I loved the book as a whole and I laughed frequently throughout as well as just generally staying wrapped spellbound up in it from beginning to end... I noticed some complaints somewhere about the ending which I can sort of understand, but actually I really liked it. Portman could have gone for a cheap "lady or the tiger" type ending and just not told us anything and it would have been entirely credible, but instead he kind of offers us a choice between an explanation that does wrap everything up in a neat package (although with some hints as to the implausibility of doing so) or an explanation which says that, hey, life is random - but again, with some thought put into it so that you don't feel ripped off by... authorial flippancy or something. And I still loved the French conversation, in spite of the fact that I knew it was coming. You know he's got a new book - Andromeda Klein - coming out soon?
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