Friday, August 26, 2016

Spontaneous (Aaron Starmer)

Every time I read a new Aaron Starmer novel, I feel the need to examine it on many levels, which is a clear testament to the depths of his intelligence--a story is never just a story with Starmer. No, there are layers twisting and folding into each other, begging to be picked apart.

At first glance, it's a novel about spontaneous combustion. This is what everyone's going to say when the book comes up in conversation; a bunch of teenagers in a regular old town called Covington keep exploding. What more do you possibly need, especially if you're one of those people who reads on premise alone? Spontaneous is a thrilling novel about Mara Carlyle trying to navigate a world where her classmates keep exploding, where the world slowly turns away from and then forgets her. It's a novel of intrigue and surprise pushed along page after page by the force of bodies literally exploding.

On second look, it's a hilarious story about (what else?) growing up. Mara is a senior in high school, after all--sure she's navigating an existence as a member of the (potentially cursed) exploding class of Covington High, but she also has to figure out how love and sex and boyfriends and drugs work! Mara is an explosive character if ever there was one: Starmer as always is such a delicate character writer, and nowhere is that more obvious than with his work on Mara Carlyle.

She's so complicated--the trope of "outwardly cynical/inwardly sensitive and profound" has been done many times, but Starmer doesn't settle for just that: she's funny, prone to surprising acts of cruelty and kindness in equal measure, and what I love so much about Mara is that she's aware of the person she is: she reports her flaws honestly and admits they're faults. She's that challenging friend in your life who says "I know I'm wrong but I don't care," and you want to hate her. Sometimes you do. It's quite a feat to create that character on the page--in an age of boring debates about likeability as it relates to female characters, Starmer charges out, middle fingers ablaze, and for that, I'm grateful.

On the triple take, however, we're confronted with a thorny set of questions: what is grief, and how does it operate? How do we handle loss? How much blame must we shoulder merely for existing? How do we move on? There are so many angles from which this question can be approached and Spontaneous isn't shy: it tackles parent-child grief, friendship grief, romance grief, collective grief, young people grief. The list stretches on. Despite the fact that so many characters die--I mean, statistically, we're probably talking a death every 15 pages or so--the story manages to peer inside each of these moments to find the heartache and suffering, to extract the nuances of each loss for us, even as Mara tries to joke her way out of having real feelings. It's exquisite, and just like real grief, it culminates in a lesson that some things must go unsolved; why do some of us survive? Why does anything happen when and how it does? What does it mean for our own agency?

While perhaps the way Starmer ends his newest novel might be frustrating to some readers--I'm looking at you, people who decry ambiguity and fume over premises that aren't explained in textbook specificity--I think it's the perfect (and really, the only) kind of conclusion to a tale like this. We are left unsatisfied because life is unsatisfying; it offers no rewards or explanations. And maybe that's bleak, but we cope, just like Mara--we can spiral downward into the abyss of existentialism, or we can make it work any way we know how.

My rating: 5/5