An Absolutely Remarkable Thing: A Review, Plus a Discussion of April’s Queerness
AN ABSOLUTELY REMARKABLE THING
bisexual lady protagonist
I’m pretty sure I’ve seen every vlogbrothers video ever made. This wasn’t planned. I just never stopped watching vlogbrothers, in 2-4 minute increments three times a week, for eleven years. I will subsequently read any book John or Hank writes, if only to stay in the vlogbrothers loop, even though contemporary realistic YA is the genre I least consistently enjoy.
But wait! An Absolutely Remarkable Thing is not, despite how it has largely been advertised, a contemporary realistic YA. It’s a science fiction New Adult, a little genre-bendy and both very mainstream and very weird. Since the book can be split down the middle as a “science fiction novel with plot” and a “contemporary literary fiction novel about fame,” I’m going to divide my review as such.
The Science Fiction Side
This is (probably) a First Contact book. Robot statues, nicknamed “the Carls,” appear simultaneously in 60 different cities around the world, and they contain strange materials that convince people they must not have been made by humans. This book felt a bit like a (very) updated Contact by Carl Sagan, and even more like a short story I really love called “Changing the World” by David M. Harris. Like in that short story, in An Absolutely Remarkable Thing, humans feel they’re being “put to the test” by superior alien life forms, and that assumption changes humankind on a foundational, cultural level.
I love alien books. The question of what the Carls are is not fully answered by the end of the book, and I will be devastated if the sequel reveals them to not have been aliens after all. The ending of the book, though, where April briefly communicates with a Carl, felt like such a harkening back to Sagan’s climax in Contact that I feel we’re being treated to a proper First Contact novel.
The New Adult Literary Fiction Side
The plot kept me hooked, but the writing did not. The writing was just…not particularly good, especially in the beginning. In fact, the first 20 pages or so of prose was so bad that I considered putting the book down within the first chapter. I don’t know if I became desensitized to the writing style or if the beginning was just less extensively copyedited than the rest, but by the book’s middle I found April May’s chattering voice tolerable and, at times, even engrossing.
The writing reminded me of when young writers aren’t confident in their command of language, so they rely on unusual fonts and font colors to help convey their message. Which, of course, is merely distracting for a reader. Hank. Green. Used. Unnecessary. Periods. For. Emphasis. …As well as…misplaced ellipses… When I reread the strangely punctuated sentences in my head, imagining only conventional punctuation, they read much more smoothly. I think it might be hard for a new writer to trust readers to “get” the rhythm of their prose without lots of bossy, intrusive punctuation.
This is very much an “ideas books,” grappling with the Internet age, but I found something similar with Hank’s book that I’ve found with John’s: If you watch all of their videos, as I have since 2007, you sort of know every significant thought that they choose to share with the world, and so their books are basically just copyedited, literary versions of their videos. Most of the ideas I have about fame and Internet celebrity I have because of the Green brothers, so I found myself nodding throughout much of the book.
Many of AART’s arguments can be applied to current American politics, despite, confusingly, the book’s world not existing within our current political climate. (It seems that, in their world, Clinton won the election, although she is referred to only as “Madam President” throughout.)
For example, when April, a proponent of trying to unlock the mystery of the Carls, is challenged by a conservative older man who wants to attack the Carls, she fights back with a long, ranting video. Immediately after, she thinks, “I had no idea of this then, but by engaging with him, I was affirming him and his wackos. Their ideas were getting more exposure through my larger audience, and I (and, of course, every news channel out there) was confirming the idea that there were two sides you could be on. It was a huge mistake, and also great for views.” A lot of sentences in this book could be directly applied to Trump.
The characterization was solid. April May is a remarkably self-absorbed narrator, to the point where she tells us very little about anyone who isn’t herself, but somehow everyone’s personalities could be felt. That sounds very basic, but a lot of books lack that. These characters had souls.
April’s soul was pretty awful, which is what I would expect the soul of an Internet-famous person to be. She, like me, is a New York-educated 23-year-old bisexual woman with hefty student loans. These similarities seem striking, but I related to her in virtually no way. She is fame-hungry and self-hating, and I liked that Hank Green dared to let her make the wrong choices, again and again and again, and then let her deal poorly with the consequences. That’s not an arc I like for every book, but I really enjoyed it for this one.
The Queer Stuff
I have to talk about the queer stuff, because this is Queerly Reads. I have no conclusive thoughts on this, but I do wonder why Hank Green, a monogamous, married, straight man, decided to write a bisexual young woman who thinks about sleeping with every character in her age range. I do have concerns about whether he took a space from a bisexual author, especially when his book has little to do with queerness. I would have felt it essentially unchanged if she had been straight, but again: I am not conclusively put off by it. Nothing about it was awkward.
One “purpose” of making her bisexual is that she is pushed into lying about her bisexuality when she becomes famous, framing herself as a lesbian because that’s easier for many people to absorb. However, there’s little insight into her feelings about her own sexuality or the labels she uses, so I don’t think that she felt anything especially important was taken away from her. But maybe that was also the point.
We talk a lot about how cis/white/straight/etc creators should not feel that there needs to be a “point” to writing marginalized characters, in the same way white male characters don’t need their existences justified. But I still expect there to be a base level of emotional honestly. Although April May is a fully developed character, nothing about her felt queer to me.
There’s an SNL skit called “Whoops! I Married a Lesbian!” It’s a boring skit guest starring Louis C.K., so I won’t link to it, but the running joke is that it’s a sitcom in which straight male writers can’t write queer women convincingly. This is what I thought of as I read about April May.
Additionally, I found it strikingly peculiar that although she receives harassment online, none of it is gendered. I thought perhaps this had something to do with possible-Hillary Clinton being president, like Green was envisioning a less misogynist version of the world, but I feel like that defeats the point of having a conversation about Internet fame through the lens of a queer woman at all. It’s like saying you want to write a novel exploring abortion but you take out all the anti-abortion protesters. (I’ll be reviewing Jodi Picoult’s A Spark of Light soon. She did not take out the abortion protesters.)
April May becomes possibly the most famous and influential person in the world. Almost every human on the planet knows who she is. I just don’t see that happening to a queer woman. I don’t think we can obtain that much power and not be mauled on the basis of our gender and sexuality. I can’t believe I’m saying this, but it would have made more sense for April’s male best friend to be in her position.
This was a sanitized rendering of both femaleness and queerness. I think writing a man would have been an excellent use of Hank Green’s privilege. (I want more white writers to write about race through a white lens, for instance, which I think demands more from white writers than them writing a character of color. There’s a direct candidness to the former and a kind of misplaced search for brownie points with the latter.)
On the other hand, I recognize that writing is an art, and characters do often pop into our heads fully-formed. One can’t always nitpick their own fiction-making to meet idealized agendas. But also, Hank Green is really famous and knew he’d be selling lots of copies of this book, so it would have been so cool if he had chosen to explore gender inequality through the lens of maleness. Or even if he had acknowledged gender inequality at all. Or, like, acknowledged queerness.
He uses the word “bisexual,” and it’s clear biphobia exists in the book, but there’s absolutely no background information on how April has navigated her queerness. She is very matter-of-fact about it in a way that feels impersonal and unreal. As a 23 year-old bisexual woman who was once horribly lonely in New York City in an essentially queer way, I just kept thinking, It’s not like that. But maybe it is when you’re quite good-looking, as April May is. I suppose at the base of it I don’t understand why middle-aged men have these Manic Pixie Dream Girls in their heads.
I enjoyed An Absolutely Remarkable Thing. I recommend it. My thoughts on April May’s queerness are in no way fully formed, and I would love to know what you thought of her as well.