Saturday, January 19, 2013

My attempt at a Harry Knowles Review * of The Other Normals by Ned Vizzini

In high-school, in my sophomore year, due to some weird mistake I was placed in yearbook class. I was going to transfer but there was a girl that I had a crush on. She was an all-American blond cheerleader. I was a somewhat newly arrived, green behind the ears immigrant with a funny name from a tiny country in Central America. The odds were against me but I didn't know it because I was from somewhere else and I believed the world was mine thanks to the American dream combined with my huge, aimless ambition at 15. I was shy but bold, so instead of trying to become friends with this girl, I would just stare at her the whole class like if she was a unicorn. The bold part wast that I sent her flowers once but never talked to her. She was aware of this and to this day I think she found it mildly cute (but not really). Looking back now, I guess I was kind of a stalker. Oh well! C'est la Vie!
So as I sat in that class room on the row to her right, three seats behind her my imagination would take flight. It would take the form of a ninja/terrorist attack at the school by a Cobra-like (G.I. Joe reference) terror organization. And of course, yours truly would come to her rescue. But the basic theme of this fantasy was that the geeky immigrant kid from a tiny country was really an undercover CIA agent who kicked butt and was a cool ass MOFO under pressure. So I'd kill all the terrorists with my Karate skills, save the cheer leader, and she'd fall in love with me. This other action packed world lived in my head for a while before I fell in love with books.
Reading Ned Vizzini's The Other Normals brought me back to my own youth in Junior High and High School. The anxiety of life at that age is traumatizing. It reminded me of the dreams and stories I created in my mind - non which I'd write down. So yes, you don't have to necessarily put pen to paper to be a writer. The most important thing is to let your creative mind fly.
The narrator of the Other Normals, Peregrine “Perry” Eckert, is a 15-year-old kid who has no friends and he's obsessed with a role playing board game called Creatures & Caverns. He spends most of his time in his room alone playing C&C and he loves it. His divorced parents are worried about him but Perry is a writer too for he creates characters and thinks of adventures. Perry might think he's content but not really. He doesn't really know how unhappy he is probably from the divorce. His older brother drinks too much and he's hardly the guiding force he should be.
Eventually Perry gets told he will be shipped to a summer camp because all he does is play C&C. He hates the idea. Fortunately, he makes a friend before being shipped off. A kid named Sam that is also into C&C. They play C&C after school and become buddies. Then when Perry arrives at camp Washiska Lake (where he's the only white kid) he runs into Sam (he had no idea he would be there) who ignores him and due to an incident with a bully named Ryu, Perry ends up at the nurse's office. After escaping from the nurse in order to find his confiscated C&C rule book he runs into a creature named Mortin and he's straight out of C&C – a ferrule - which Perry ultimately follows into the world of THE OTHER NORMALS.
The world of the Other Normals corresponds to the normal world with every person having a “correspondent”. Anything you do in the Other Normals will have effects in the real world. With that in mind, our hero befriends Mortin Enaw, the pebble smoking “ferrule” and his beautiful blue haired intern Ada Ember. He also makes enemies, with various types of creatures with fish or frog heads and normal bodies.
In the world of the Other Normals Perry feels alive from the rush of adrenaline and newly discovered purpose of trying to rescue a princess that's been kidnapped by the monster Ophisa. Back at summer camp, nobody really wants to talk to him, not even his now “secret” buddy Sam. And not just that, but the fate of the princess might hang in the balance if Perry cannot foster a romantic moment with a fellow camp goer who may or may not be the correspondent of the damsel in distress.
Perry's bouncing from summer camp to the Other Normals leads to hilarious and embarrassing situations. Ned Vizzini could have gone a number of directions with this story but he makes all the right turns to keep you interested in both worlds that Perry inhabits. The book is a fun read. The juxtaposition of Perry at summer camp versus him in The Other Normals world reminded me of that 80s movie The Last Star Fighter about an arcade playing kid who lives in a trailer park that gets called up by aliens to save the galaxy. The book gives off the same type of wonder as that film - the normal kid that's on the verge of entering a whole new world.
The other theme of this novel which I found interesting being that life threatening situations and/or facing one's own mortality gives one perspective about the things that we should really worry about. This was a subject which was touched on as well in What is the What by Dave Eggers in which Valentino Achak Deng goes back and forth between the ridiculousness of America (waiting many hours to be admitted in an emergency room) and the near death experiences he faced on his trek in Sudan. What both novels remind me of, despite being from two totally different genres, is how the American pipe dream is a new level of mental anguish. We're not fighting lions and trolls everyday but isn't the rat race a kind of indescribable monster like Ophisia? But I will not go off on a tangent.
The Other Normals is a well written novel that I wish someone had given me when I was entering adolescence for it could have opened my eyes to the wonderful thought that I wasn't alone in my action/adventure fantasies. Also, if you've never read a fantasy novel, I highly recommend this as an introduction. But I will be passing The Other Normals to my 12 year old nephew Alex. This will undoubtedly be his first step in the long trail that will lead him to Tolkien and other great fantasy literature.

You can buy the novel HERE

Ned Vizzini's website is HERE

The two reviews that inspired my review were:
*Harry Knowle's Review of Django Unchained
And the late Christopher Hitchens' review of Bouvard and Pecuchet by Gustave Flaubert 

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