For a first young adult novel, John Corey Whaley’s debut book is surprisingly complex. Besides the arrangement of the plot, in terms of subject matter and theme, the novel is heavily layered and even plays with a reader’s perceptions of reality and fantasy. And if you look closely enough, you will probably notice a faint essence of The Catcher in the Rye, i.e. consider the presence of the mysterious Dr. Webb and how he really might figure into Cullen’s story….
Of the three tales that are interlaced, Cullen’s is arguably the most intricate in detail, through what he tells and doesn’t quite admit to the reader and perhaps even to himself. I found it interesting how he transitions from a first person narration to the objective “When one…” sections. In a way the transition seems to be a therapeutic outlet, a sort of coping mechanism when Cullen relates his story. When a part of his story becomes too embarrassing or stressful to describe personally, Cullen distances himself. It is these particular sections of the text that become quite layered. They’re divided into two forms: fantasy dreamscapes of the macabre—zombies, fears, even a couple comical scenarios—and reality, memories of things past and the present, both the good and the bad. As his story progresses, it becomes increasingly difficult to discern what’s real and what are Cullen’s own imaginings in these “When one” sections, especially the final one. While the ambiguity might deter some readers, the added complexity these sections provide in my opinion becomes an asset for Whaley’s novel.
The other two stories, Benton’s and Cabot’s, are equally dark and intense. Benton’s story in a way almost reflects Orual’s tale from C.S. Lewis’ Till We Have Faces: A Myth Retold. Like in Orual’s tale, Benton becomes increasingly lost behind the veil he’s created for himself, through his constant efforts to try to please his father and fulfill his desire to be of some purpose. Like Orual, he tries to reflect and reinterpret his situation, but each time, Benton comes up short. Unlike Orual, no matter how hard he tries, he cannot seem to find that sense of inner beauty to help him view the world as a beautiful place. For Cabot, I’m not really sure how he initially lost himself, i.e. the fact that upon graduation Cabot did have the intention to further his education, but the next time he reappears, that prior ambition and interest in his studies was lost. There’s a missing piece of the puzzle that Whaley seems to have forgotten to include. Of the three, Cabot’s story, though, is the most disturbing and creepy, not exactly for what he does initially, but for what I believe is implied at the end. I think here, unlike in Till We Have Faces
blind fidelity and obsessive love win over redemption and reconciliation.
Two real complaints about this novel: I don’t really like how Whaley names his characters. Cullen and Cabot are a little too similar, and I think that’s why Whaley, when he refers to the characters often includes their surnames. While this adds clarification, it also can be a bit jarring when reading, i.e. it’s not that common for novels to refer to characters by both their forename and surname. Also, Neil the bag boy… “the missing link” who could have provided a potential lead to help the police, never comes forward. Why? Too scared? Or could he have truly been oblivious of the potential connection?