Friday, February 10, 2012
Where Things Come Back
I listened to this story in my car, driving from some Pittsburgh Point A to Point B; I was mesmerized by the possible re-emergence of an extinct animal (because I am interested in evolutionary biology, and extinction, because I have read David Quammen's Song of the Dodo at least four times).
After hearing this story, I read up on the ivory-billed woodpecker, and downloaded some Sufjan Stevens songs (of which "Flint" from his Michigan album is my favorite).
John Corey Whaley also heard this story, and wrote a Printz-award-winning novel.
Thus two roads diverge.
Because, despite my best efforts, I remain annoyingly out of the very-current-releases loop, I hadn't heard of Whaley or his book until the awards were announced last month. Like the good booknerd I am, I checked the award lists as soon as I got up that morning, then promptly requested a stack of them through my public library's interlibrary loan system.
Yesterday, Where Things Come Back was ready for pickup from the library; yesterday I got it and read it, very nearly in one sitting. It's a slim book, but not skimpy; it just moves - or rather, draws in the reader - quickly and completely. There is deceptively sly flap copy, which made me think, especially once I turned to the second chapter, that perhaps I was holding in my hands something along the lines of Calvino's If on a winter's night a traveler. I wasn't, not exactly, but the book I did have was wonderfully, beautifully, intelligently crafted, with competing narratives that unwind gradually into single arc. The teasey flap copy made me hyper-alert for any and all postmodern trickeries, of which there aren't many (if any), and I resent that, because it took a small bit of my attention away from the real book (not the one the flap copy, and my brain, imagined).
If Where Things Come Back has any flaws, it's in the overly-intelligent and sensitive narrator - Cullen Witter - a common-enough failing in any number of novels for and about teenage boys [Rarely does one see an overly-intelligent and sensitive female narrator who rings true as a female narrator; this needs to be thought about, because I may just be exposing a massive bias of my own]. The moments when Cullen is distracted, seemingly annoyed, by attractive girls offering him sex felt most improbable; I have known too many overly-intelligent and sensitive boys myself, all of whom have made clear to me that their 17-year-old selves would never have been able to turn down those kinds of opportunities.
Cullen's a bit tricky to peg - he presents himself, initially, as something of a loner, possibly misanthropic, an outsider who writes in a notebook, who spends most of his time with his two-years-younger brother - except we learn that Cullen's best friend is Lucas Cader, who is well-liked, kind, popular, athletic, attractive. And then we learn that Gabriel, Cullen's brother, is the real eccentric: Gabriel spends all his time reading or listening to music no one's ever heard of (Sufjan Stevens included here). I'm still not sure what to make of, or do with, either Cullen or Gabriel: both are immensely interesting and quite likeable characters, but I feel like I don't know quite enough about either. This could be a flaw in the novel, or it could be a strength: has Whaley created such compelling characters that I'd want to know more about them regardless of how much backstory he provided? [hint: the answer is probably yes. I'd like to read a book narrated by Gabriel. He's just my kind of boy/narrator - if he wasn't 15, I'd have a regular old bookcrush on him].
There's an ivory-billed woodpecker stand-in, the Lazarus woodpecker, an opportunistic man who discovers (?) the continued (?) existence of the bird, there's the small town that capitalizes on the bird-given fame (the Lazarus burger! the lazarus woodpecker haircut! and so on). There's a beautiful girl who never actually gets her character developed; there's a less beautiful girl who does, and becomes quite interesting for it [Gabriel's book could include her; they could be friends, but absolutely nothing more].
There's the larger, stronger plotline: Gabriel disappears. Cullen and his parents drift around for eight, nine, ten weeks while Gabriel is gone. The impossibility of that kind of loss, which is never true grief because missing suggests both life and the possibility of being found, but the longer Gabriel is missing the more likely it seems that he is dead. Meanwhile, the bird is getting all the attention: photos, posters, articles, newsreports - everyone is looking for the bird.
Alternating with Cullen's narrated chapters is another story, which becomes a set of stories which slowly, gradually - and very artfully - interlocks with Cullen's narrative. It's easy for that kind of device to become a gimmick, or at the very least a bit of unnecessary narrative virtuosity, but Whaley somehow manages to make it feel absolutely, flawlessly right. It's a slow reveal, the way the pieces fit together, but it's not a mystery, and it's not poorly paced; we know that eventually the story of Benton Sage and Rameel and Cabot Searcy and the book of Enoch will mesh with the story of Gabriel and Cullen and Lucas Cader and the bird.
There's excellent attention to detail in this novel, tiny details about notebooks and cereal bowls being cleaned, that give a richness to the world of the book. The oddball characters - Fulton Dumas, for one - wear their literary oddity well; they're not there to be quirky or charming, they are there because oddballs are there. The world of the book is a fully-realized one that is simultaneously charming and repulsive; charming, in its richness and depth and small-town-ishness and strains of hopefulness; repulsive in the horrors and fears that are so easily set off and so hard to get rid of.
The more I think about Where Things Come Back, the more I wish it was a longer book; I want more detail about the characters, I want to watch them do the things they do, I want to know why they do what they do. Cabot Searcy's progress is mapped out for us, slowly and relentlessly, and he makes psychological sense to me, but I don't know, say, Ada or Alma nearly as well. I don't need to, for the book to work (and to work well); but I want to, because Whaley's a good writer and his cast of characters are intriguing.
Worth noting: the friendship between Lucas Cader and Cullen Witter is quite an interesting one. Again, there's a lack of depth that is actually narrativized; at one point Cullen flat-out asks why Lucas is his friend, and Lucas's answer fills less than one line of text. But Cullen's attachment to Lucas set off all of my queer-detectors - though he states, more than halfway through the text, that he loves Lucas "in a very nonsexual way." Early on, Cullen disrupts his own daydream to insert Lucas as the ultimate hero/rescuer, and all of his descriptions, his representations, of Lucas are at least faintly tinged by a kind of queerness. [Cullen mentions, briefly, the homophobic names he's called as an unathletic, smart male, then moves past that; I note, again, that queerness and gayness are not the same thing]. The male relationships in this book would be worthy of their own novel (or two or three) and maybe a critical companion as well; the connections and affections amongst Cullen, Gabriel, and Lucas are complex and layered, and not at all what I'm accustomed to encountering from male-protagonist YA fiction. In my personal, stupidly complex system of card-cataloguing, I might set Where Things Come Back alongside Will Grayson, Will Grayson as a "male friendship/brothers" theme of some significance. I'd also place this - cross-indexed, of course - with any texts from the perspective of a somewhat worshipful older brother. Older siblings tend to either be absent - if they aren't the heroes of their novels - or merely annoyed by the existence of younger siblings, if they are the protagonists. Siblings are functions, not characters (obviously there are massive exceptions to this), but in this novel, both brothers are full-fledged characters.
One of my favorite touches of Where Things Come Back (aside from the major touch of being able to weave together seemingly disparate items, characters, events into a glorious whole) is Cullen's narrative trick of displacing himself via third person. He writes things like "When one enters his kitchen to find his mother, father, and best friend all seated in front of a stack of uneaten pancakes, he knows that something strange has happened" (84). The shift from "one" to "his," from the seemingly impersonal imperfect to the very personal present tense, is such a delicious narrative trick that I don't even know how to talk about it intelligently. Something about it gave me (gives me) figurative goosebumps; that slippage from impersonal to personal, from a coolly detached perspective to the gut-twistingly personal and immediate. I don't want to ascribe this to "boy sneakily shows emotions while pretending not to have emotions," because that is a kind of gender essentializing I want to avoid [though it does have that representational quality]. Instead, maybe it's simply narrator attempting, vainly and valiantly, to talk through the things that are most awkward, painful, uncomfortable. The novel's frequent mentions of Dr. Webb - who we never do meet, and who seems to be a psychiatrist or therapist - hearkens back to old H.C. in The Catcher in the Rye (because no one can write a YA novel, or any novel, about a less-than-happy adolescent male without THAT comparison cropping up); there's a sense, as in Catcher, that this story is being told for, or at the suggestion of, someone else, someone who isn't the reader or the narrator. Leaving that mystery unsolved, unresolved, is one of the little gifts of this novel, one of many, many little gifts scattered throughout its pages.