Wednesday, October 31, 2012

Travis' Book Review: The Other Normals by Ned Vizzini

At age 15, Ned Vizzini began writing a series of personal essays about his high school experience that was eventually combined to form his first book, Teen Angst? Nah…A Quasi-Autobiography.  Since then, Vizzini has established his ability to charm readers with his quirky sense of a humor, an often sardonic, but equally intelligent, commentary on his own experience with social awkwardness. It is Vizzini’s personal experience and self-awareness that allow him to portray the trials and tribulations of the socially-alienated teenager, providing readers with a personal, believable, and genuinely funny account of male adolescence.  In The Other Normals, Vizzini’s fourth offering, he continues the trend of exploring his own teenage years (and possibly his recent Magic: The Gathering fixation) through the eyes of Perry Eckert.

Fifteen-year-old Perry has an addiction. Unlike his brother Jake, however, Perry doesn’t drink, party, or really do anything that requires having friends and being social. And why would he? Everyone calls him “Mini Pecker.”  He’s too short, too skinny, has no idea how to talk to a girl, and worst of all, Perry is addicted to role-playing-games. Specifically, Perry is obsessed with Creatures & Caverns, a blatant juxtaposition to Dungeons & Dragons.  In fact, Perry is so socially alienated, he doesn’t even have anyone to actually play the game with. Instead, he spends hours on end simply reading the manuals and creating characters.  One day, however, Perry meets Sam, another C&C player who smokes, swears, skips class, and begins to fuel Perry’s obsession to the point that he, himself, is skipping class just to play. His parents take notice of this new trend and decide Perry needs to learn some social skills, forcing him to attend summer camp. While at camp, Perry has a encounter with someone he wasn’t supposed to meet – Mortin Enaw, a being from The World of the Other Normals.  Mortin takes Perry into his world, a land filled with many fantastical creatures, where he learns that he must embark on a quest to save the princess and thwart a rein of violence that will impact both of their universes. Perry’s quest, however, lies in his own world and will be the most difficult thing he has ever done – kiss a girl.


Unlike most fantasy novels I’ve read, The Other Normals is an incredibly quick read. Each Chapter is surprisingly short but written in a manner that makes you want to continue.  I often found myself wanting to stop reading but continued the next chapter after noticing it is only a few pages long. A few pages will quickly turn into a few chapters.  The best thing about the novel, though, is Vizzini’s witty sense of humor and the fact that he makes the reader very aware of the prevailing theme.  The first line, “This is a story about becoming a man,” establishes that this is a coming-of-age tale, but then, the line continues, “so naturally it starts with me alone in my room playing with myself.”  The writer is referring to C&C, of course, but it’s this kind of humor that sets the tone for the rest of the story.


What Vizzini does best in The Other Normals is utilize the concept of adolescent male fantasy to create believable (and often too familiar) internal dialogue. While the universe and creatures that Vizzini create are not spectacular and the quest itself, saving a princess, is cliché, it’s that fusion of the fantasy genre and real-world adolescent fantasy that keeps the story fresh.  So, not only will the reader get the satisfaction of watching Perry grow on his quest to manhood, but will also get to see Perry “level up” in the fantasy sense.  Plus, Vizzini does a nice job integrating the two concepts.  At one point, while Perry is being attack by a pack of dog-faced human hybrids, he’s as focused on the females’ bare chests as he is with trying to avoid being eaten.  Other times, it’s Vizzini’s voice shining through, offering a bit of keen social commentary.  For example, when Perry looks at a map for the first time while plotting a path through a valley full of creatures known to eat travelers, he notes that the land is shaped strangely similar to New Jersey.  The weakness of the novel lies in the ending. Since the book reads so fast, the ending seems too rushed.  The climax and conclusion do not have the kind of epic feeling or build-up that a fantasy reader might crave, leaving holes in the fantasy portion of the narrative.


Overall, The Other Normals is both a quick and fun read. I would recommend this book to any reader that enjoys the fantasy genre, has played an RPG, or just wants to have a little fun exploring the often confused, sometimes misguided, mind of an adolescent male.  While the novel is written from a male point of view, a concept that is especially noticeable when discussing puberty and adolescent male perception of girls, anyone can appreciate the humor and the insight.  After all, growing up, learning to fit in, and learning how to talk to your first love, is the one adventure we all take.


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