Sunday, June 30, 2013

"Far Far Away," by Tom NcNeal (Knopf, 2013)

The Protagonist: Jeremy Johnson Johnson. A young boy in a small town who can hear ghosts.
His Angst: The bank is going to foreclose on his family's store and home, but his father is too depressed to even get out of bed. Plus this crazy redheaded girl is getting him into some pretty weird shit.

Secondary Characters:

Ginger Boultinghouse: An inconsistent, unstable Manic Pixie Dream Girl who wants Jeremy Johnson Johnson. For some reason. Is also dating Conk Crinklaw. Maybe?

Jacob Grimm: A lonely ghost who thinks helping Jeremy by tutoring him for university will heal his unresolved issues and let him pass on into the afterlife.

Conk Crinklaw: The rowdy son of the town mayor who inexplicably hangs out with and does favours for Ginger despite the fact that she treats him like hot garbage.

Jenny Applegarth: A frequently-divorced waitress who falls for Jeremy's father.

Deputy McRaven: A cruel and sinister character with an unnatural obsession for Ginger.

Blix: The kindly town baker who is known for his famous Prince Cakes - which are said to make you fall in love with whomever you look at when you eat your first bite.

The Finder of Occasions: The Big Bad - because he, uh, finds occasions?

The Tweets: I livetweeted my reaction to this novel here.

Angst Checklist:
  • My dad's too depressed to parent me unless there's chicken pot pie involved
  • Token Homophobia
  • I Hear Dead People
  • I Don't Understand Why This Teenage Boy I'm Tutoring Is More Interested In Boobs Than Studying
  • Gossip
  • Wild, Crazy Redheads
  • Child Murder

The Word: I could totally do a cheesy pun about how "Far Far Away ... is how far you should run from this book!" but I like to think my blog is slightly too classy for those types of shenanigans.

Instead, let's just say Far Far Away is a cutesy, grating, and poorly-plotted tale that fails from the outset and just keeps getting worse.

Firstly - our main narrator is the ghost of Jacob Grimm (yes, that Grimm), who has wandered the world searching for a way to finish his unfinished business and move on to the afterlife. Upon discovering American teenager Jeremy Johnson Johnson can hear his voice, he decides (for some reason) that his purpose must be to protect, instruct, and constantly nag Jeremy about schoolwork. So yes, this story about contemporary teenagers is narrated entirely in the stilted, exaggeratedly "old-timey" voice of a ghostly adult scholar. Let that one sink in.

Jeremy is barely making ends meet by doing odd jobs around his village of Never Better, since his severely depressed father has not shaved, worked, or left the house in years. All of that changes when Ginger Boultinghouse, the Manic Pixie Dream Girl to end all Manic Pixie Dream Girls, decides to include him in a prank against the town's beloved baker that goes disastrously awry.

While all of this is going on, Jacob Grimm also has to keep an eye out for a mysterious, malevolent entity known only as the Finder of Occasions - who is supposed to be a Big Deal despite sounding like an entry-level position at Hallmark.

For the first half of this novel, there is little to no actual plot. Jeremy Johnson Johnson might as well be made out of Play-Doh for all the initiative he displays. He's just a Good Boy With a Pure HeartTM. He cares for his depressed father without complaint. He does all his schoolwork. He always tries to make the right decision. He has no real desires or motivations of his own beyond being the world's most passive Gary Stu.

Good thing there's the horrifically contrived Manic Pixie Dream Girl Ginger to steer Jeremy down a different path! Ginger's unstable, selfish, and offensive behaviour is probably meant to seem Wild, Untamed, and Adventurous - but really, she's a bullying user with no real character development who asks for favours with one hand while delivering insults with the other.

I might have tolerated her if she'd been a developed character in her own right, but, like most Manic Pixie Dream Girls, she exists solely to serve the hero's story as well as his budding sexual desires with her Wild Untamedness. What's her homelife like? What are her own personal motivations? Not important! She's just there to seem Magically Unattainable so that it's all the sweeter when the hero "wins" her.

Even Jacob Grimm the Haunted House Reject hates Ginger but his attempts to lure Jeremy back to studying come to naught, and we get 150 pages of Jeremy placidly accompanying Ginger on her random escapades while Jacob wrings his ghostly hands and curses the advent of puberty. The novel then takes a sharp left turn down WTF Alley and suddenly we're dealing with serial killers, torture dungeons, child abuse, and pedophiles.

I'm not even kidding. The biggest flaw in Far Far Away is its' wildly uneven tone. For a long time, I couldn't figure out whether this novel was YA or Middle Grade. The simplistic characters with twee names (like Conk, Dauntless, and Burpo), the exaggeratedly odd set pieces, and the immature behaviour of the protagonists suggest Middle Grade. But then we discover the sinister Deputy McRaven who's been following Ginger and making comments about how she "gets around" (she's fifteen!) is in love with her - which suggests YA. Or an episode of To Catch a Predator.

But then there's the fact that McRaven's obsession is never brought up or addressed again beyond a throw away mention that he's now a "laughingstock." Um, I don't know about you, but most people don't laugh at adult male authority figures who harbour obsessive romantic fantasies about fifteen-year-old girls.

And yet, the novel still seems too immature to really be a YA novel. While the story hints at several serious themes (mental illness, parental abandonment, prejudice, homophobia - and did I mention the serial childkiller with a torture dungeon?), it either brushes them under the rug or solves them in insultingly simplified ways. Like how Jeremy's severely depressed father, who was unable to leave his house to pick up his own son from the police station, is magically able to spruce himself up to go on a date with a virtual stranger after knowing her for a day. Or the character who was thought to be the first victim of the serial killer who turns up alive twenty years later for no apparent reason.

I realize that these miraculous events work in fairy tales, but this novel explicitly tells us through Jacob Grimm that the real world isn't as simple as the stories he collected when he was alive.

At the end of the day, the only thing I would categorize Far Far Away as is one hot mess.

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