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.