We are already at the second Friday of YA Fest and today will be all about The Strange Fascinations of Noah Hypnotik by David Arnold. I first decided to follow Arnold's work after reading Mosquitoland, and felt completely validated in that decision after reading his follow-up, Kids of Appetite. Arnold has a knack for portraying introspective young people attempting to deal with complicated relationships that most adults would have trouble with, but with the addition of a strange road trip, or a charismatic and troubled group of runaways, or a bizarre altered reality set to a soundtrack of David Bowie songs.
The Situation: It is the beginning of senior year for Noah Oakman, who admits to having obsessions, or what he prefers to call his "strange fascinations." There is the YouTube video of the girl who took a picture of herself every day for forty years; the photograph that was dropped in Noah's classroom by a guest speaker; the old man with a goiter that Noah sees walking every morning before school; and Noah's favorite book by is favorite author Mila Henry, Year of Me. Not listed among the strange fascinations is the life and music of David Bowie. Noah refers to himself as a David Bowie believer, and wears the same Bowie t-shirt everyday (he owns several of the same shirt, rotating between them). When not obsessing or at school, Noah spends his time with his two best friends, twins Val and Alan, and faking a back injury that keeps him off of the swim team. Future plans include everyone graduating but still staying fairly close to home, until Noah finds himself at a stranger's home, getting hypnotized.
The Problem: Ever since that night, ever since Noah followed Circuit (his real name) home, there have been some significant changes to his daily reality. Now Noah's mother has a scar on her face that was not there before; the family dog is no longer pathetic and useless; Alan is now an avid Marvel fan, when Noah has always known him to be into DC; and both twins are now talking about going to college in California instead of sticking close to home. The only things in Noah's life that appear to have not changed at all are his strange fascinations, as well as his sister Penny. Noah has no idea what is going on. Has he lost it? Or was he lost before and now things have finally righted themselves? He decides to find out, and ends up learning about himself in the process.
Genre, Themes, History: This is a young adult fiction novel set in and around the fictional suburb of Iverton, Illinois (though there is a real place called Riverton, Illinois). For the most part, Noah is a typical teenager in his final year of high school. He is somewhat particular about how he likes things organized, and perhaps is a bit more into cleanliness that teenage boys are generally believed to be. But he has a healthy amount of anxiety about the future, loves his friends and family, and even has a sport that he excels at, though he does not wish to pursue it. Also like most teenagers, or really most people in general, Noah has a tendency to get too caught up in his own head and look at everything only as it relates to him and his experience, which allows him to ignore the needs of those around him. According to his own description, the work of fictional author Mila Henry can be compared to that of Kurt Vonnegut, and other author's Noah appreciates include J.D. Salinger, Henry David Thoreau, and Haruki Murakami. While my experience with the work of Vonnegut is sadly quite lacking, I can definitely say there are elements of Noah's story that reminded me Holden Caulfield in Catcher in the Rye, especially when it comes to his interactions with his sister Penny. I also found myself thinking of Murakami's work, in particular the slightly altered reality in 1Q84, as well as the feeling of isolation that is present in many of the Japanese author's work, specifically Colorless Tsukuru Tazaki and His Years of Pilgrimage. Elements like these often made Noah's story a little like an Easter egg hunt. I found myself going to Google more than I normally would while reading, but it was more of a fun side quest than an annoying diversion. And if course, there are the many delightful mentions of the life and work of David Bowie.
My Verdict: When it comes to an Arnold book, there is always much more to the story than what is seen by the teen character that is telling it. Noah can only see as far as his own reality as he knows it, so the reader must go along for the ride as he tries to figure out the situation. And it certainly is a ride. As the reader, we get to go with Noah as he befriends a lonely old man and learns about his life. We also get to go backstage at a seedy local club and observe local musicians struggle to make it, while pretending that the struggle is not wearing them down. Unraveling the mystery of Noah's strange altered reality is certainly fun and entertaining, but I did have the nagging sense the entire time that I may be in for one of those 'he was dead the whole time' endings. Even so, I enjoyed gathering clues, taking notes of the small or sometimes big differences, interacting with Penny, and taking chances with Noah that he certainly would not have taken had his reality stayed what it was.
Favorite Moment: There are two. The first is when new acquaintance Sara calls out Noah for the small number of women on his favorite authors list, as well as his need to compare his one favorite female author to a male. The second is when Noah admits that of course his dream girlfriend was something he made up only his mind.
Favorite Character: I like Sara a lot, mostly for the reason mentioned above. But I also like Noah's sister Penny and her insistence on being her.
Recommended Reading: Outside of YA, I do recommend Murakami's 1Q84, and, to a lesser degree, Colorless Tsukuru Tazaki and His Years of Pilgrimage. And within YA, both Mosquitoland and Kids of Appetite are no brainers.