Monday, June 9, 2014

Noggin (John Corey Whaley)

I was hesitant to read this book only because its author, John Corey Whaley, also wrote Where Things Come Back, a novel with a premise that intrigued me, a Printz medal that convinced me, and an execution that disappointed me severely. Unfortunately, this book was much the same. Alas.

Clearly, I'm a sucker for interesting ideas, and the one behind Noggin is definitely promising. Travis Coates is sixteen and riddled with cancer--he's going to die, and everyone knows it. But a medical team comes to him in his last days and offers him a crazy chance: store his head cryogenically and, in a hundred years maybe, science will be advanced enough to transplant it onto another human's body. Knowing it's unlikely but with nothing to lose, Travis and his family agree to participate.

And then he wakes up five years later, attached to a perfectly healthy body. Travis can't tell that any time has passed, but everyone from his life--including his best friend Kyle, who confessed his homosexuality to Travis in one of their last conversations, and his girlfriend Cate--have had to mourn his death and move on. So he's more than a little surprised to find out Kyle has gone back in the closet and that Cate is engaged to a new boyfriend. Stuck at 16, since he didn't age a day during his cryogenic preservation, he has to return to high school while dealing with being a celebrity/miracle.

Too bad the book refuses to go anywhere interesting. The beginning of the book is fun, sure: Travis is struggling to adjust to the world, and for awhile at least, Whaley does a good job. I have spoken several times before about the danger of making a character "special": if you give your protagonist magic powers or a superhero ability that other people don't have, you then have to find a way to let the character adjust and absorb that power into his/her understanding of his/herself. I have read a lot of really terrible variations on this, sometimes even whole books devoted to the character struggling to understand this new "version" (yes, I'm talking about Divergent).

For Noggin, coming back to life is Travis' "power." I understand that it would be incredibly difficult to re-enter a world that has existed five years without you, but it seems that Travis can't do anything but fuss about it. I wanted the book to be exciting and exploratory, but it's just a bunch of paragraphs of our narrator reminding us that "it's not fair because things are different now :(". I get it, and I sympathize, but if that's all you have to say, it's not a good novel.

Even worse is Travis' constant pursual of his ex-by-default, Cate. She doesn't immediately reach out to contact him, and understandably so: the person she loved was dead, and she thought he would stay that way until at least after she herself was dead, too. So he begins to follow her and hang out with her a lot, repeatedly telling her how they're true love. They're meant to be, she'll have to break it off with her fiancé, that's just the way of things. And she tells him no over and over. But he doesn't listen.

Again, clearly this would be something horribly difficult to deal with, but what Whaley chooses to do with Travis and Cate's relationship is repetitive and boring and frustrating to read. There's a scene at the end where Travis kind of changes his attitude, and it was a refreshing burst of sensibility, but so sudden and at odds with everything we know about his character that it grated on me almost as much as his incessant Cate-whining.

The part of the novel that I really enjoyed was Travis' parents. They are the most interesting characters, and they're well-formed: overjoyed to have their child back, desperate to make him happy, terrified of losing him. The author's command of the parent characters is pitch-perfect, and after finishing Noggin, my greatest wish is that the book had been written from one or both of their points of view, or honestly any other character's point-of-view, because Travis as a narrator is horrifyingly annoying.

Sometimes, he narrates flashbacks, and in these scenes, it's clear that he isn't annoying--he talks frankly and openly about really heartfelt moments from his past, like his holiday-palooza that his friends and family throw him before his head is removed from his body, or a memory of him and Cate watching a scary movie. Every time we had to return to the present, I was disappointed. I would much rather have read those scenes for 300+ pages than what I did sit through.

So I'll give it three stars: one for the premise and fun, well-conceived opening, one for his parents, and one for the flashbacks. Three even feels like a bit of stretch because of how irritated I was by Travis. Sorry, dude. You are tiresome.

My rating: 3/5
Noggin on Goodreads
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