Thursday, May 19, 2016

Books for the Weird Kids

I was reading Jesse Ball's forthcoming novel, How to Set a Fire and Why and a phrase flickered through my brain, “This is the perfect book for weird kids.” Once the phrase hit me, the list followed. Not all of these books feature “weird kids” as protagonists and only one or two of them were written specifically for young adults, but I think all of them touch on the bravery and creativity that I think define the idea of “weird kids.” So, thanks to the book that I hope will finally make Jesse Ball the international literary superstar that I think he deserves to be, here are some books that are perfect for the “weird kids.”

Lucia's father is dead, her mother is essentially catatonic in a mental institution, her elderly caretaker aunt is just barely scraping by, and she is far, far too smart for her own damn good. A sharp wit, an aversion to the bullshit society asks of us, and exactly zero fucks to give, Lucia is your new favorite character. Though Lucia is very much a teenager—Jesse Ball does an excellent job not forcing adultness on her—it's a few moments scattered throughout the book where her insight breaks through the adolescent doldrums to reach profoundly human, and yet realistic insights or phrases that makes this book so special.

Every brilliant book Jesse Ball writes I think will finally bring him the fame that he deserves. Given that How to Set a Fire and Why is Ball's most realistic and straightforward work, with YA crossover potential that still maintains the sense of wisdom, radical politics, and wonder that defined his early works, and an intoxicating narrator I think this might finally be the book.

Lord of the Barnyard by Tristan Egoff
John Kaltenbrunner is a genius of self-sufficiency. From a young age, he has the knowledge and the aptitude to run his family's farm without any help from the outside world. His is a genius that makes the rest of society (maybe even civilization) irrelevant to him. There are few things society hates more than being ignored and so all the forces of school, government, and religion converge on a young John Kaltenbrunner to take away everything that was important to him and crush every resource he once used to sustain his independence. His farm is taken and he gets sent to jail.

When he returns to his hometown, he ends up on the lowest rung of society that can be occupied by a white man; garbage collector. (Among other things Egoff does brilliantly, Lord of the Barnyard confronts directly the classism and bigotry of our still severely stratified society.) But he eventually gets his revenge by organizing a garbage collector strike that results in massive city-wide riot that is one of my favorite scenes in all of literature.

Grace Krilanovich's novel of drugs, drifting, and language is the thinking goths vampire novel. This dark and moody novel is drenched in language and imagery and manages to portray it's drug-addicted drifting hobo vampires beautifully without glorifying them. (Romanticizing, maybe, but it's not like Krilanovich is the first to romanticism marginalized lifestyles. Actually, now that I think about it, that's pretty much the entire point of the Romantic movement.) In a truly just world the phrase “The Orange Eats Creeps,” would be scrawled on the inside of locker doors as a code to fellow travelers all across the country.

A Visit from the Goon Squad by Jennifer Egan
A lot can happen when you start a band in high school. It could be your foot in the door to the music industry, or lead to fame the long way around, or create nothing more than some good memories of thrashing on instruments in a garage and dreaming of far more than your talent and/or work ethic could ever accomplish. But none of it can happen without that first spark, that first whatever it is you feel in your bedroom or in the back of your friend's car, or during gym class or whatever, that lets you imagine you could be doing something else. You could be in control. You could express yourself. You could be exploring fashion and identities. You could discover yourself. You could be an artist.

Egan's masterpiece is about a lot more that just the music industry and its style looks forward to the next great movements/developments in English language literature, but, with all of its wide ranging brilliance and stylistic innovation, A Visit from the Goon Squad is about that spark that keeps the goons of time at bay.

Flight by Sherman Alexie
No other book I've read so perfectly captures the contradictions and complexities of adolescent male anger and how that force, often most mysterious to the young men who feel it, can lead both to tragedy and to growth. The protagonist, Zits, is about to shoot up a bank, but in the instant before he makes the biggest mistake of his life, he goes on a vision quest in which he inhabits the bodies and minds of people across history.

Ultimately, what Zits discovers is that there really is no such thing as an “individual,” just moments temporarily sliced out of the continuum of human life and human decision by the limitations of perspective. Zits discovers he is a part of something that stretches back in time and, if he stops himself now, forward into the future. And Alexie does an amazing job of communicating those ideas through the diction of a teenager, making this one of the books I often recommend to teenagers. And it even has a happy ending.

How I Became a Nun by Cesar Aira
As a rule, Aira writes weird books. Some of the weirdest in fact. How I Became a Nun starts when a sour tasting cone of ice cream leads to a murder by arsenic poisoning. (As happens.) Naturally, that leads to the impossibility of identity and gender in centralized power structures.

There are many things that Aira does well as a storyteller, but, perhaps what he does better than everyone else is maintain a tense but perfect balance between rational techniques for storytelling and utter batshit insanity, so that it is often impossible to tell when a scene has transitioned from realistic to flat out bonkers. Whether they feature weird characters or not, all of Aira's books celebrate the freedom and fun of being weird.

Maclane was the first queen of that magical, wondrous, rainbow dedazzled kingdom of not giving a fuck. A literary sensation and scandal when she was alive, Maclane was an amazing cross between Fredrich Nietzsche and Annie Oakley, with a dash of Whitman and Dickinson's impossible love child. I Await the Devil's Coming is something of a memoir, something of a journal, and something of a manifesto. Maclane herself became one of the first sexually open, feminist superstars, with this debut book selling 100,000 copies in its first month. (So naturally, the patriarchy did their best to erase her from our cultural memory.)

Her prose can be raw, even desperate as she dreams of a freer life than the one she leads in Montana, but despite its volatility, her prose is also intelligent and perceptive. If Lucia from How to Set a Fire and Why came to Porter Square Books, I'd give her I Await the Devil's Coming. McClane is the patron saint of everyone looking to leave this shit town to become a fucking legend.

Geek Love by Katharine Dunn
And, of course, a list of books for weird kids wouldn't be complete without Katharine Dunn's classic. To me, the important idea in Geek Love, at least for this list, is that “normalcy” and “freakishness” are constructions. Whether it's through breeding experiments or the accumulation of social mores or the calculated and intentional marginalization of identities that threaten homogeneous power structures, the ideas of “normal” and “weird” are movie sets, creations that can be built, torn down, replaced, and modified both at the societal and the individual level. Once you see that, and weird kids do see that, the world of potential identity and experience opens up before you.

I was weird kid adjacent growing up. Though I hung out with some of the artists, started a lit mag (that had a shockingly long life), took AP classes, and dabbled in one-act theater, I also played football and hockey and felt comfortable being and looking like an affable cisgendered straight white man. My parents even supported my dream of being a writer. Which is a long way of saying that, though I had my adolescent struggles as everyone did, I never learned the bravery that weird kids learned.

Given that bravery, is it any surprise that weird kids make our art, design our fashion, drive our culture, and invent our great technological breakthroughs? We clearly learn something when socially and sometimes even official outcast from society, something that can help us grow into the world's most successful and important adults. Perhaps the title of this list is something of a misnomer then. I hope that there will be comfort in these books for the weird kids now and maybe even some pride. But I also hope those of us who weren't weird, either by choice or by social pressure can get a lot of out of the books as well. I hope we can see how valuable those risk-taking kids really are to our world, how much joy and beauty their weirdness adds to the world, and perhaps even, try out a little of that bravery for ourselves.

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