The Strange Fascinations of Noah Hypnotik by David Arnold—a book review

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Apophenia: the tendency to perceive meaningful patterns where none exist.

Noah Oakman is a kid of appetite; he even tells Circuit Lovelock (yes, that’s his name—bear with us) this the evening of their seemingly chance meeting at a high school party: “I think my appetite for life exceeds that of a normal human” (53). Noah’s appetite includes writing his own concise history, obsessing over a photo dropped by a singer who visited his high school, ritually reviewing a time-lapse YouTube video of a woman who took a daily self-portrait every day for nearly forty years, stalking an elderly man with a goiter who walks in his neighborhood, and consuming all available information about his favorite author, the enigmatic Mila Henry.

How do all of these appetites, these fascinations, connect? Noah is convinced they do, especially after his encounter with Circuit leaves his own circuits seemingly rewired, seeing a scar on his mother he swears wasn’t there before, the physical transformation of his family’s dog, the changing personalities of his gay best friend Alan and Alan’s sister Val. But not everything has changed: Noah’s younger sister Penny, for example, remains “pathologically authentic.” And Noah still has to make a decision about college and his future.

Arnold’s hyper-allusive young adult novel involves frequent David Bowie references (see also: the title) but it’s the Beatles who come to mind when I think about the patterns Noah finds. Specifically, “Eleanor Rigby”—”Look at all the lonely people/Where do they all belong?” Noah’s quest to find his place in the world, as it does for so many high school seniors, features the constant vacillation between the insistent dreams of the future and the resistant reality of loss. Loss of family, loss of friends, loss of self. A crippling fear that “the potential of loneliness is scarier than actual loneliness” (394).

If you’ve read Arnold’s previous novels, Mosquitoland and Kids of Appetite (and if you haven’t, fix that oversight), the mania, melancholy, and musings of Noah are of a piece with characters from those books. Until everything changes and Noah Oakman becomes Noah Hypnotik and we are figuratively taken across the universe.  The Strange Fascinations . . . makes Arnold’s previous novels feel positively restrained—the intentional bombastic sprawl of Arnold’s latest reads as though Walt Whitman decided “Song of Myself” should be a concept album and recruited some prog rock legends to record it. The Strange Fascinations of Noah Hypnotik is indeed strange, and hilarious, and strangely fascinating in its treatment of loneliness, longing, and loss. I encourage you to board the propulsive vessel of Arnold’s novel and float along in its most peculiar wake.

 

 

The Teddy Bears—To Know Him Is To Love Him

Tom Breihan over at Stereogum has been running a column about all the Number One songs on Billboard’s Hot 100 chart since its inception in 1958. (It’s great—you should check it out.) I decided to use each song as a writing prompt.

 

The specter of future ills

fills the clean notes with a grizzly

wall of dread—can we bear

the question of whether

we ever really know, know, know

anyone?

Emergency Contact by Mary H.K. Choi

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What to do when your enjoyment of a book forces you to confront a genre bias:

1. Quietly place the book on a shelf in your classroom library, work on plausible deniability.

“Emergency Contact? Not sure how that got there—maybe the publisher sent it to me?”

2. Declare the book a genre outlier, anomalous, and praise it with “Yes, but . . .”

“Yes, I enjoyed Emergency Contact, but mostly because the author breaks with narrative convention by using lists and replications of text messages, and her usage of pop-cultural references and neologisms like “snack-crastinated” creates a ludic narrative voice . . .”

3. Admit how you tore through the book because you loved the two main characters and dug how the author unironically/ironically embraced many genre conventions—and finally admit to yourself and others that enjoying a good romantic story neither makes you a Disney-fied cultural dupe nor destroys the last vestiges of your illusory masculine street cred.

Emergency Contact by Mary H.K. Choi will make you put down your phone long enough to see what happens between first-year University of Texas student Penny and slightly older barista/baker/brooding budding filmmaker Sam, the supposedly off limits and unobtainable “uncle” (it’s complicated) of Penny’s UT roommate, Jude.

And then pick your phone up and tell all your friends to read this book. Even if, like Penny, you’ve never had many friends.

Blisteringly funny, alternately snarky and heartfelt, a winning mixture of the engagingly trivial and the disturbingly real,  Emergency Contact illuminates as much as it captivates, shining lights of varying intensities on issues such as female friendships, mother-daughter relationships, modern romance, sexual assault, race and class in America, and the ways social media and technology are changing how we construct our identities and connect with each other. Highly recommended.

tl;dr (didn’t read my review; you should absolutely read the book) —crying from laughing emoji/actually crying emoji/heart-eyes emoji.

 

Tom Dooley—The Kingston Trio

Tom Breihan over at Stereogum has been running a column about all the Number One songs on Billboard’s Hot 100 chart since its inception in 1958. (It’s great—you should check it out.) I decided to use each song as a writing prompt.

 

A murder ballad missing Nick Cave’s

baritone,

missing any sort of feral

moan,

any bloodlust or anguished

koan alluding to a dripping

subterrane,

missing the red right hand,

the stain

of Satan, the mark of

Cain,

is reason to hang your head

and cry.

 

 

 

 

An Alpha Move with Beta Moments

An Amana dishwasher whose color is best described as “wan tan” and whose age is indeterminate but certainly older than any of my high school students.

A gas stove (the nomenclature here has always daunted me—range? oven?) in black whose age more closely approximates the middle schoolers whose twitchy jitters make me shudder.

A bench of slatted wood sitting under the kitchen window where the driveway meets the side door of my house, a bench pressed enough by weather to regress to the color of “not.”

I inherited these items when I became a homeowner eleven years ago.

The stove sputtered to a stop earlier this month; apparently the aging igniter no longer ignites (must. avoid. easy. metaphor. here.), and an ignition remix will cost more than the stove is worth. A replacement arrives next week.

The dishwasher still works—sort of. Sometimes it leaks a bit, as all systems do, though more noticeably than grammar. Sometimes the drain fails to provide proof of concept. “Clean” has itself become a shifting continuum; meanwhile, I fear the neighbors hear the dishwasher operate—this is not a subtle beast. A replacement arrives next week.

The bench remains, but with a personally chosen and applied fresh coat of paint—”Rookwood Dark Red.”

Repainting a bench may merit scant mention for most, but for craft-addled me, this is an alpha move. An alpha move with beta moments to be sure, most notably the sheen of terror at the Bazooka Joe color on initial application. Trust the reasoning —let the paint dry, bubblegum becomes burgundy. A bench renewed, ready to weather further seasons.

Sometimes what worked in the past needs replacing. Sometimes what worked in past needs refreshing. Sometimes we need to be patient with the process.

The new school year begins soon.

 

It’s Only Make Believe—Conway Twitty

Tom Breihan over at Stereogum has been running a column about all the Number One songs on Billboard’s Hot 100 chart since its inception in 1958. (It’s great—you should check it out.) I decided to use each song as a writing prompt.

 

“My one and only prayer

is that some day you’ll care.”

 

But what if the absence of God

is also God?

 

Two roads converged on a word,

and I—I mustered only a sigh,

And wished I could still tell the difference.

 

 

It’s All in the Game — Tommy Edwards

Tom Breihan over at Stereogum has been running a column about all the Number One songs on Billboard’s Hot 100 chart since its inception in 1958. (It’s great—you should check it out.) I decided to use each song as a writing prompt.

A sweet bouquet.

As he sidles up,

he whispers

your sobriquet

—part of the opening salvo

feigning intimacy,

love not as salvation

but acquisition—

not your real name.

 

A sweet bouquet,

but no plans to stay—

The game is still the game.

 

 

Little Star—The Elegants

Tom Breihan over at Stereogum has been running a column about all the Number One songs on Billboard’s Hot 100 chart since its inception in 1958. (It’s great—you should check it out.) I decided to use each song as a writing prompt.

The arbiter elegantiarum

of the royal court

of social media

says “full send,”

without fear

or favor,

to any photo

where your eyes twinkle

without filter.

 

 

 

 

Nel Blu Dipinto Di Blu (Volare) by Domenico Modugno

Tom Breihan over at Stereogum has been running a column about all the Number One songs on Billboard’s Hot 100 chart since its inception in 1958. (It’s great—you should check it out.) I decided to use each song as a personal writing prompt.

 

Unfairly debonair

Andrea Pirlo chips

a free kick

into the waiting

Fiat 500 Spiaggina,

whisking us to sun-dappled

Tuscany in the lost episode

of season two of Master of None.

 

Alternately:

Tony Soprano and Dr. Melfi star

in a remake

of Pasolini’s Il vangelo secondo Matteo,

which ends with a pull-back

dolly

shot of the resurrected Christ fading

into blue.

Volare.

 

The Fiat 500 Spiaggina by Garage Italia.The Fiat 500 Spiaggina by Garage Italia.

 

Poor Little Fool by Ricky Nelson

Tom Breihan over at Stereogum has been running a column about all the Number One songs on Billboard’s Hot 100 chart since its inception in 1958. (It’s great—you should check it out.) I decided to use each song as a writing prompt for myself.

Woo fails

and the chorus

coos in assent

as our Ricky tries

but loses the number

loses the plot

loses his heart

to those carefree devil eyes