It is difficult to find quality young adult novels with a sensitive male teenager as the protagonist. While this has to do with the stereotypes generally tied to readers of the genre, the rarity of this character also has a lot to do with issues and perceptions of gender in contemporary society. There is something about the male teenager (who openly expresses his emotions) that tends to irk some people; in tandem, this lack says a lot about the social expectations of masculinity, in which it is deemed that men should be stoic drones incapable of feeling. Nonetheless, some of the greatest young adult classics are written through this rare perspective, including but not limited to J.D. Salinger’s The Catcher in the Rye and Stephen Chbosky’s The Perks of Being a Wallflower.
John Corey Whaley‘s Where Things Come Back (you can read a summary of the novel’s plot here) can genealogically be traced to these aforementioned novels, not only because it delves deeply into the psyche of a male teenager, but also because it is beautifully written, honest, and challenging. By challenging, I am not referring to the complexity of the prose, but rather the complexity of the ideas that are philosophized in the narrative. Rather than complying with the linearity and predictability found in most coming-of-age plots, Whaley offers the reader a challenging puzzle without giving the reader all of the necessary pieces to form a complete picture. This is truly where the novel shines: rather than providing the reader with all of the answers, it is deliberately ambiguous, thus forcing readers to come up with their own meanings. As one of the characters of the novel posits towards its conclusion, “life has no one meaning, it only has whatever meaning each of us puts on our own life” (227).
Structurally speaking, the novel is one of the most experimental that I have encountered within the young adult genre. First and foremost, it offers what at first seems to be two entirely different stories, yet these bifurcated narrative paths begin to merge in unexpected (and heartbreaking) ways. Secondly, the protagonist of the novel, Cullen Witter, tells the narrative mostly from a first-person perspective, except in instances where he is (day)dreaming, reflecting, or analyzing his own thoughts. During these latter moments, the perspective shifts into a self-referential third-person point-of-view, as can be seen in the following passage:
When one’s parents storm out of the house followed by a psychic who is still holding his missing brother’s T-shirt and book, he stands up, looks into his mother’s eyes, and wonders where they are headed. (108)
This not only creates the illusion of the character trying to create a split between the real and the imaginary, but it also illustrates the protagonist’s attempt to actively live life while simultaneously trying to escape from it. The narrative shifts entirely to a third-person perspective when focusing on the plots of other characters.
It is very difficult for me to categorize this novel thematically due to the presence of many issues and tensions within the plot (something characteristic of most coming-of-age novels), which includes religion, violence, love, sex, death, and uncertainty. To further add to the novel’s sense of ambiguity, it is at times difficult to determine whether these issues are approached cynically or optimistically, especially when it comes to the ending. The novel embraces postmodernity (intentionally or unintentionally) by constantly destabilizing meanings and offering multiple perspectives to complex issues. The most intriguing of these destabilizations, in my opinion, was the novel’s treatment of religion, especially as distilled from the perspective of a Christian missionary, a delusional religious fanatic, and the everyday practitioner of religion. The novel also deliberates the issue of fate, pushing one to question the extent to which events are connected and to which our actions and thoughts are predetermined.
The main character of the novel is certainly memorable, but the most intriguing character for me was the Christian missionary, Benton Sage, who at first is the focus of the novel’s secondary narrative (warning: major spoilers ahead!). Benton Sage is a Christian (I assume he’s Mormon, even though this is never explicitly mentioned in the novel) who disrupts his evangelical mission in Africa because he feels that he is not doing much to provide salvation to the country’s residents; his appointed tasks are focused more on charity rather than on preaching. This character is fully immersed in his religion, to the point where he admits that he has few other interests in life, such as music or the arts, because these are not creations of God: “Well, I’ve always sort of thought that if the Lord didn’t make it, then it doesn’t need to be made. So I kind of just stick to the scriptures” (42).
Benton is not only shunned by his family because of his inability to carry on with his mission in Africa, but his future college roommate even goes as far as to speculate that Benton is gay… an interesting claim, seeing as Benton’s roommate is described in a very suggestive and provocative fashion: “Before him stood a tall, lean, and muscular boy around his age with neatly combed brown hair, piercing eyes, and a serious look about him” (78). Alas, the reader is unable to delve too deeply into Benton’s psyche because he eventually commits suicide relatively early on in the narrative–and an explanation for this suicide is implied, although never explicitly stated. Benton’s insecurities, obsessions, and religious fixations transfer to his roommate, Cabot Searcy, who will later be the source of most of the tensions found in the novel.
Where Things Come Back, as the title of this post suggests, has been one of the most haunting reads that I’ve encountered in a long time, and it will definitely be a text that will linger in my mind as I continue to explore issues of personal development, gender, and growth in young adult fiction. It exudes quiet passion and heartbreak, invoking the desperation and the helplessness that is felt when trying to make sense of the ups and downs of life. The book is greatly reminiscent of the other great works of young adult fiction, such as The Catcher in the Rye, Flowers for Algernon, and The Perks of Being a Wallflower, but it also adds an original twist to the implications of growing-up and facing the harsh realities of life. I recommend this read if you are looking for something that is simultaneously puzzling, meaningful, and beautiful. I am definitely looking forward to reading Whaley’s future work.
Whaley, John Corey. Where Things Come Back. New York: Atheneum (Simon & Schuster), 2011. Print.