My first read of 2019 was An Absolutely Remarkable Thing (AART) by Hank Green. Green is best known for creating educational videos on YouTube including Crash Course and SciShow videos, and his brother, John, is known for his YA novels including The Fault in Our Stars and Turtles All The Way Down. As a fan of Green’s from YouTube and other places on the internet, I didn’t want to write off AART as just another ‘YouTuber book’. I felt, or rather hoped, that he hadn’t got a publication deal for being Hank Green, and that the publishing house had felt his work worthy of publication on its own merit. Having read videos scripted by Green as well as essays and thinkpieces published online I was confident he was capable of writing in a sophisticated and considered manner, though essay-writing and script-writing requires a different set of skills to novel-writing.
My first impression of AART was not the best. I’m not generally a fan of books written as though the fictional narrator actually sat down and wrote a book except for a few occasions where it’s pulled off very well and not made blatantly obvious that it’s happening. The narrator, April May, opens the book by directly addressing the reader to introduce the story in a very obtuse and almost aggressive manner that makes her instantly unlikeable, and she remains rather unlikeable for the majority of the book.
The choice to have the book not only narrated, but also written by April May allows some of Green’s more unconventional stylistic choices a pass. Having words in all caps to shows they were shouted seems like the mark of an author who lacks sophistication, but April does lack sophistication. She’s twenty-three years old, unable to maintain an adult relationship and becomes obsessed with fame and attention. She is not a professional writer, and the way this story is told reflects that. While the style fits the character Green has created, it was at times excessive to the point it detracted from the flow of the story, and also meant Green wasn’t able to show off a more sophisticated, adult style of writing. This is possibly also the source of debate around whether the book is classified as Young Adult or Adult. Green’s intention was not to market it as a Young Adult book, instead defining it as ‘speculative fiction’. The writing style, however, definitely reads as being tailored towards a younger audience, despite the language and plot being more adult-oriented.
The plot itself was strong, though seemed to have very little pay-off. The Carls as a concept were compelling and seemed simultaneously ominous and harmless. The dream sequences and puzzles provided an interesting way to include all of humanity in what was such a human-centred story. Had the dream itself been limited to April and her friends it would perhaps have pushed the boundaries of suspense of belief a little too far, but including all of humanity and necessitating co-operative effort to solve the sequences made the theory of the Carls testing humanity seem far more plausible. Towards the end, tension is built around the Carls and their possibly malevolent nature, but this is never fully explored, and they just… leave. At the end, we are left with a world in which April is supposed dead, though from hints in the book we know she cannot be: she writes it retrospectively, tells Andy to contribute to the end of it, and references her own death at the beginning of the book, and a world that has simply been left by the Carls.
Before the book’s release I had read that April was an openly bisexual protagonist which had made me even more excited to read the book. I have to admit to feeling a little let down on this front though: Putnam’s biphobia seems to go mostly unchallenged, and April’s sexuality adds very little to her character. I’m not trying to say that the story should be about April’s bisexuality, but having her bisexuality play a little more into her character and having more relevancy to the story would have been interesting.
Finally, the supporting characters. I felt that some of them went rather under utilised, with Maya especially being treated particularly badly by April and then undertaking much of her (very important) role in the story remotely. Robin never seemed to get fleshed out and was left in the assistant box he was placed in when he was introduced despite playing a key role. Hints were dropped about a potential relationship between Miranda and Andy that April supposedly ruined, but this was never given the play out it deserved, with April referencing it only after the point in the story it was meant to have occurred, claiming she had only realised afterwards, though when she realised is left a mystery to the reader.
Overall, An Absolutely Remarkable Thing has a strong plot and very strong narrative voice that fits the character to whom it is given, though some aspects went underdeveloped or underutilised. The writing style, while fitting for the narrative, seemed at times overbearing to the point of being a little off-putting, and there seemed to be far more loose ends than there should be at the end of a novel, even one with a sequel in the works. Who are the Carls, really? Why did they just leave? What happened to April? How do the Carls have the abilities they do? What was the purpose of their observations? When does April realise something was happening between Andy and Miranda, and what was the something that was between them? We shall have to hope the sequel to the book has answers to at least some of these questions.
Rating: 3.5 stars.
This review also published on my goodreads account, https://goodreads.com/ells_f.