Monday, August 5, 2013

The Universe Versus Alex Woods (Gavin Extence)

Thanks to NetGalley for the chance to review this ARC! Per usual, I'm behind, so this book is already out and has been for a few weeks. Oops. I'm a terrible blogger. Do I get a prize?

This book definitely has an attention-grabbing opening--Alex Woods is driving back from Switzerland, trying to re-enter the U.K., but he is detained. In his car: lots of marijuana, the ashes of a dead man and a classical music CD blasted at full volume--when questioned about it, he reveals that he was trying to stave off an epileptic seizure. And then we jump backwards in time to when Alex was hit in the head with a meteor, which is the cause of his epilepsy. I mean, what about this isn't madcap and utterly fascinating?

The problem is that the book becomes progressively less interesting as we approach the point we read in the opening of the novel. It's great fun at the beginning when we're with epileptic Alex and his psychic mother and things are generally cuckoo. But slowly, things become very conventional within the framework of what could have been a delightfully quirky premise--Alex goes to school, Alex is bullied because he likes to be smart, Alex gradually becomes friends with a cranky, lonely old man, Alex learns a lot from the old man and the old man learns a bit from him, too. It's a collection of tropes from the coming-of-age tale, and it all feels disappointingly familiar.

And yet, I couldn't quite bring myself to dislike the book. The Universe Versus Alex Woods is just too goofy not to love--Alex remains funny throughout the book, his mother is delightfully nuts, Mr. Peterson (the aforementioned cantankerous old man) consistently got me to smile because of how accurately Extence wrote him. The quirk just does not stop, either: Alex and Mr. Peterson start a Kurt Vonnegut philosophy book club; there's a hospital breakout and a European road trip; Alex's cat can't stop getting pregnant. I can just feel Wes Anderson's hipsterometer throbbing--should he make this into a movie? Yes. Probably.

And so as entertaining as the thing is, it goes in such an expected direction. I wish it hadn't. Gavin Extence, if you're there: why? The book never gets too entrenched in its emotions, and I can't decide if that's a good thing or a bad thing. Of course, the dead man's ashes are Mr. Peterson's, so you know at the beginning that he dies by the end, but I was never sad. I'm not sure if it's bad that I wasn't made to care or better that the book doesn't take itself too seriously (AKA The Fault in Our Stars); if it's the latter, then what I ended up reading was basically a fluff piece. It doesn't quite go anywhere.

The Universe Versus Alex Woods is a book high on interestingly silly ideas but ultimately low on attention-keeping substance. The mark of the author's ability lies in his characters, who are just as loony as some of the contents of the novel I've already mentioned. But if he doesn't do anything interesting with the characters, and that's sad.

My rating: 3.5/5
The Universe Versus Alex Woods on Goodreads
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