Tuesday, July 23, 2013

"The Universe Versus Alex Woods," by Gavin Extence (Red Hook, 2013)

The Protagonist: Alex Woods. A pretty ordinary young man, all things considered - apart from his epilepsy and the scar he has from being struck by a meteor.
His Angst: An avid scientist with a coolly logical method of analysing situations, he has to come to terms with the fact that with humanity, sometimes there is no correct answer.

Secondary Cast:

Ellie: A foul-mouthed punk teenager who helps out at Alex's mum's shop.

Dr. Weir: An astrophysicist who arrives to study the meteor that struck Alex, she and Alex develop a strong friendship and she serves as his scientific mentor.

Dr. Engleby: Alex's neurologist, and a godless Buddhist who believes in meditation. Another character who helps develop Alex's scientific curiosity.

Mr. Peterson: A tough old coot who befriends Alex and introduces him to the works of Kurt Vonnegut.

Angst Checklist:
  • Dealing with epilepsy
  • I've just discovered I'm an atheist but my mother thinks she's psychic
  • Being Different versus Fitting In
  • Unorthodox Parenting
  • The value of scientific reasoning
  • Ladies Don't Like It When You Use the C-Word
  • Assisted Suicide
  • Diet Coke versus Weed
The Word:  Our story starts at the end - when 17-year-old Alex Woods is pulled over by the cops at the border to Dover. He's caught with a buttload of weed and an urn full of cremated human remains - and that's not even what the cops are really angry at him for.

To explain how he got to this point, however, Alex takes us back to when he was ten years old and miraculously survived being struck on the head with a meteor. Over the next seven years of his life, he struggles with epilepsy, develops scientific reasoning, rejects organized religion, discovers the works of Kurt Vonnegut, and befriends a cantankerous war vet named Mr. Peterson.

The Universe Versus Alex Woods is a marvellously pleasant book - Extence writes with an arch sense of humour not unlike J.K. Rowling's as Alex observes the foibles of his schoolyard bullies, his clairvoyant mother, and his other friends and neighbours from his curiously detached perspective. The supporting characters are all very colourful and well-developed, particularly Mr. Peterson, with whom Alex develops a unique friendship.

That being said, while Universe is pleasant, it's not precisely memorable. The novel doesn't really have a plot beyond the vaguely interesting and somewhat-connected events that take place over seven years that gradually lead up to the Actual Event that lands Alex in so much trouble. Sure, Alex is an epileptic and he got conked on the head by a meteor, but most of his life is pretty ordinary. While his scientific pursuit of the meaning of life may very well resonate with many readers, I kind of wish the narrative had been more focused around a particular goal. Instead, Stuff Kinda Happens, Mostly By Accident, while Alex observes, analyses, and eventually deals with it. It's not terrible, but it's not terribly profound or interesting, either.

The novel does have its funny moments, mainly at Alex's expense. Alex is a supremely logical character - fascinated and motivated by scientific theory and reasoning, he's perpetually surprised when the world around him (more specifically, the people in it), refuses to adhere to the same sort of predictable, rational order. As his friendship with Mr. Peterson demonstrates, no matter how old you are or how much experience you have, the universe can still surprise you.

The Universe Versus Alex Woods is a gentle coming-of-age tale with a decidedly scientific bent, and a solid read, even if the plotting could have been stronger.


  1. This is a fantastic review. First, I have to give you massive applause for working 'buttload' into your review. That takes talent. ;)

    Second, I reviewed this and felt much the same as you did, although I think I liked it even less. But I felt the same about the meandering plot line and detached writing style. Except I didn't think the book was funny, like at all. I actually enjoyed the writing, for the most part, and I thought it was unique enough, but I like to feel things when I read. And this just didn't work for me.

    1. Yeah, to me the main character was too clinical and detached from everything - it worked in small doses and the story itself was pleasant enough but I couldn't really get invested in him or the story very much.

  2. Christina Franke6:22 AM

    Hmmm, I'm not a big fan generally of books where stuff just happens for no particular reason. I just feel like there should be some point to it all. I've felt that way a few times lately, and it always leaves me feeling a bit unmoored.

    Though it sounds like a pretty good read, I think I can live without it easily enough.

  3. AnimeJune6:41 AM

    Definitely. It was alright, but not earthshattering. A pretty average read all around.