Title: Something Like Normal I Author: Trish Doller I Publisher: Bloomsbury
Young Adult literature is defined by the American Library Association as fiction that would be appropriate for children between the ages of 12 to 18. A branch of the American Library Association known as the Young Adult Library Services Association (YALSA) offers the following synopsis for Something Like Normal:
Travis, a young Marine, deals with life at home after his best friend is killed in Afghanistan.
Actual Plot Summary: Travis Stephenson is a nineteen year old Marine who is taking a month's leave that his commander ordered so he can try to make sense of the moments leading up to the violent death of his best friend (Charlie) in Afghanistan. Travis is struggling with nightmares, panic attacks and some haunting hallucinations of Charlie's death.
Not only has Travis changed quite a bit during the months that he has been away from home, but so has his family. His father and mother are facing a marital crisis. Additionally, Travis's brother (Ryan) has stolen Travis's car and girlfriend (Paige)…both for his own personal recreation.
But the more things change, the more they stay the same. Travis's father (a former Green Bay Packer) has never forgiven him for not following in the old man's footsteps and has maltreated Travis since he quit the football team in high school. His father is an oaf of a man who now owns two car dealerships. Since Travis's deployment, Mr. Stephenson pretends to work late into the night so he can pursue a sexual tryst behind his wife's back. Upon Travis's return, the contentious relationship between father and son picks up where it left off. More than once in the story, Travis contemplates violence against his father. He offers to beat him up for his mother who only passively objects out of a sense of propriety.
Since he's been gone, Travis's mother has spent all of her time obsessing over Travis's absence and military career. She openly admits to Travis that she loves Travis better than Ryan. In conversations that she has had with Charlie's mother, she encourages the impression that she loves Travis more than even her husband. She has joined support groups for Marine moms, collects supplies for Afghani children and has become emotionally distant with her husband and younger son.
One day after his return, Travis takes his mother out for lunch and gets her drunk. In her inebriated state, she finds the courage to throw Mr. Stephenson out of the house. Travis becomes oddly angry and resentful when his parents temporarily reconcile before she finally files for divorce.
Travis has decided to be a good sport about Ryan and Paige and agrees to join them at a party. While there, he experiences a panic attack and leaves abruptly. He wanders into a local dive bar where he sees a girl he knew from school (Harper) and strikes up a conversation with her. She punches him in the eye as a reminder that he ruined her reputation when she was thirteen years old because he lied to his friends and told them she puts out.
That night, Paige sneaks into Travis's room and has sex with him. The next day Travis seeks out Harper to make amends and to pursue a romantic relationship with her. The remaining story breaks into three fragments: Travis's mom and dad facing divorce, Travis's betrayal of his brother and Harper as he continues his sexual relationship with Paige and Travis's growing distress over Charlie's death.
The story concludes with Mr. and Mrs. Stephenson divorcing, Travis speaking at a memorial service that is organized by Charlie's mom and her lesbian life partner and Travis winning over Harper in spite of his deception and infidelity.
This young adult book has earned a Mature Content rating for extreme language, sexual content and violent imagery, aberrant and extreme anti-social behaviors. It receives two and a half stars for story development.
Review : I read an article a while back on the subject of American literature. Over time, I'm left with only a vague impression of the piece and I honestly couldn't tell you who wrote it. It would have been someone like Bill Buckley or Mark Steyn or John Derbyshire – you know; a conservative who is/was more concerned with politics as it impacts culture than with culture as it impacts politics. I just remember the premise, but basically the author asserted that in the last two hundred plus years, America has made brilliant strides in the area of non-fiction, it can bang out a pretty good short story, but it has yet to produce the "great American novel."
From time to time, that idea wanders into my thinking and I try to puzzle through why Americans are content to generate pap and call it great literature when there are certainly enough promising writers that could produce a novel that might change the world. I recall that the author of the article mused that perhaps Americans just have short attention spans and can't focus long enough to write anything but dime novels and polyfill, and that might be true but I don't suppose that's the crux of the problem.
I think the problem is that somewhere along the line, deconstruction became all the rage and so too did tearing down the ideas that fill great books.
Here's the thing. Truth – by definition – does not change and books that last through the centuries provoke and inspire people to recognize some kind of universal truth. Deconstruction bolsters the deception that truth is mutable and that all ideas, having been imagined, are equally valid. But most people, even the hardcore deconstructionists, intuitively recognize the lie of this assertion. It is certainly a lie and they must suspect this or they would not see any reason to frustrate authenticity, so there would be no need for propaganda.
Something Like Normal is an interesting study in propaganda because it truly contains some lonesome embers of creativity that could be fanned and fed to make a good – maybe even a great story, but the book itself is the embodiment of identity crisis because it fails to solidify its purpose to anything like reasonable outcomes.
The sexual interactions, for instance, that are laced throughout the story may be realistic as a superficial and ephemeral means of transport, but they don't reveal any truth of what fulfilling human connection should look like. Most of the relationships in the story are ethically transient. Additionally, the author offers the reader no suggestion of what a fulfilling human connection is in her own opinion… other than the lesbian couple which, per the schema for modern deconstruction, is posited as the model of devotion. So what you are left with is Rikki Lake/sensationalism which may offer a moment of trifling eroticism but is ultimately only scandalous in the here and now.
Like all pornography, it will soon fall flat as the culture devolves and continues to deaden the spirits of our young people. Those young people – trained now in the art of sensationalism – will seek greater and greater thrills to feed their growing sex addictions.
To this end, the story lacks any temerity necessary to sustain itself beyond three or four years because it is too complex for the average 12 to 15 year old who will soon be seeking this level of erotica, and the 16 to 18 years olds who are more emotionally suited to complexity will soon be mocking the story's carnal reticence. The YA novel will no longer be provocative and, lacking any anchor to universal truths, it will only remain valuable in an archeological capacity. Two thousand years from now, someone will dig up my old Kindle and write a thesis on what a tool the owner must have been for having had such an assortment of tawdry reading at her disposal.
That is what you can expect for an author who celebrates emptiness. Take the Oedipus and Jocasta vibe running through the mother-son relationship that is central to this story as a for instance. Oedipus Rex has survived thousands of years because once the truth of Oedipus's relationship to Jocasta is revealed, it is entirely understood that there is something about it that is manifestly malformed. It's horrifying. It's unnatural. Sophocles takes a stand. The reader acknowledges the truth of his position and can analyze the fatal flaw that led to Oedipus's downfall.
But what we have in Something Like Normal is an Oedipus archetype that symbolically kills and replaces his father, a mother who would prefer to symbolically replace her husband with her son rather than work on the actual adult relationship that she is committed to, and an author who makes no attempt to register the deformity of it all. Instead, Ms. Doller rejoices in this death of marriage because a stereotype born of her own imagination is successfully set up to be the Ralph Crandon buffoon in this two dimensional Punch and Judy show.
And even a pop culture Ralph Crandon will outlive Something Like Normal because Crandon's buffoonery at least presents a crude wisdom about love and marriage.
So by now you may have decided that I'm being unreasonable in expecting an author of children's books to negotiate her way through the moral conundrum of an oedipal complex for a book meant for kids between the ages of 12 to 18.
Look. The discussion is not a reflection of what I think children should be reading. But it's clearly not too complex for teens by educational standards because the subject matter already exists in this book as a pregnant pause and the story was considered to be one of the top works of YA literature in 2013 by the American Library Association. So if it's in the book, then at least there should be some sort of analysis by the author about why the mother-son relationship is a freak of nature.
At any rate, it's certainly not more complex than the main character having multiple hook-ups with his brother's sex toy who used to be the main character's sex toy until he went to Afghanistan. Behold the torch bearer of gender equality basking in the glow of modern feminism as the young lady whores herself for the glorious cause of sibling rivalry. Wow. Is that girl power or what?
And the concept isn't more complex than the interpersonal workings on display as the main character romances the girl that he emotionally crippled when he lied and told everyone that she was his sex toy back in junior high – this improbable courtship is happening while he's screwing around with his brother's sex toy which constitutes a de facto infidelity even as the relationship is being codified….go ahead explain to your teenager why Harper's willingness to accept Travis for all his sexual peccadillos is just the first step in a long journey toward recreating the marriage of Travis's dysfunctional parents, but the author rather sees this dysfunction as a happily-ever-after.
…which, again, is reminiscent of a Greek tragedy or maybe I'm giving the author more credit than she deserves.
This book is not recommended for children under seventeen and only recommended for children seventeen and older if they can demonstrate an ability to analyze the book for its imbalance.