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Be More Chill
Tuesday, September 27, 2005 [11:48 am]

This novel by Ned Vizzini was a glorious one-night read for me. It is perfectly written (Vizzini is obviously a genius prose stylist). Be More Chill says everything I've ever wanted to say about the high school "cool" phenomenon. If you've ever been on the outside of high school cool, and you're um---male, under 30, and somewhat in touch with current pop culture---then this book will click with you. I gave it 6 hours of my time, and I'm a slow reader.

I hate reviews that wade through plot details. The reason I'm writing a review is because this novel has been largely ignored as a "teen book." I ignored it myself for many months. Something last night made me pick it up. So, this is not really a review, but a tale of pleasant surprise and discovery in the face of a misguided marketing campaign. To illustrate, I include an email that I sent to the author below.

First, we need to deal with the sci-fi issue. Don't be put-off by the cover: this book is not about VR. I generally avoid sci-fi, but this book is not sci-fi (maybe it's post-modern social commentary pretending to be soft-core sci-fi). If you must have your sci-fi fix, this book does deal with qubits, nanomachines, and mind-altering drugs in a seaworthy fashion. It deals with these things, but it's not about these things. It's about being cool. If you respond to that statement by saying, "Hufff, whatever that means!", you've hit the nail on the head.

The whole "cool" thing has certainly been beat to death by post-teen writers and filmmakers over the years. You might pass off Ned Vizzini as yet another post teen who can't forget high school. But where classics like Heathers deal with cool on a surface level (observing that there is a pecking order, and observing/mocking how people behave within that social structure), Vizzini delves deeper, disecting cool behavior move-by-move and gesture-by-gesture. He then ties all these details together into a clean, compact, and entertaining book.

Be More Chill describes the exploits of an awkward outcast who manages to infiltrate the inner circle-of-cool. Think Marcia Brady helping the gawkish Molly Webber to become popular, but replace Marcia with a squip.

So, if this is such an interesting book (here is a novel that deals with masturbation, infected nipple piercings, and probability fields, yet still made it onto Entertainment Weekly's Top Ten list for 2004), why have we all passed over it? Why did I pass by it time and time again? I think this is a story about how flawed marketing can keep a work from reaching its proper audience. On to that letter.

Written to Ned Vizzini:

You've done something great with this book. You've really captured the essence of the whole "cool" thing. What a perfect book. Damn clever: every page clever. Every word is perfectly placed (except for one small typo, which I cannot seem to re-find right now).

And this is coming from someone who turns his nose up at anything less than Pynchon or Nabakov. Think about it---you're 24, and you're already up there with those guys. I have never written to an author like this before. Maybe it helped that I watched the movie Amadeus last night just before starting your book. I just finished your book this morning. A night of basking in that genius/mania feeling.

Oh... I guess I should balance all of this gushing. The cover art is horrible.

They had your book featured on the "teen" rack in our local library. I have passed by it many, many times and simply blown it off. First, it was on the teen rack, and it shouldn't be there. Second, the screaming-dork-mouth with VR glasses thing turned me off. A book about VR? Not reading it.

So why did I pick it up this time? The tiny words "a novel" under the title grabbed my attention. This is a novel that might be mistaken for something other than a novel---that's a good sign. Then I read a few quotes from reviewers on the back. I'm a sucker for a good review.

Something just said "Read me." But, with Amadeus, Say Anything and a bunch of books for my two-year-old already checked out, I put your book back on the shelf---another book on the maybe-read-it-someday mental stack. Then my two-year-old came up with an extra school-bus book that I forgot to check out. Since I was going back to the check-out counter anyway, I grabbed Be More Chill on a whim.

I wonder if Catcher in the Rye was originally taken up by a children's publisher and shelved in the teen section. On the reprint, please switch publishers and get new cover art. Why be shelved next to Franklin W. Dixon when you can be shelved next to Jonathan Safran Foer?

And how come everyone knows that damn code for getting 30 lives in Contra? Well, not everyone, actually, since no current "teen" knows that code. That's more supporting evidence: your book obviously has a higher calling. That doesn't mean I won't be recommending it to my 14-year-old cousin.

Granted, that letter doesn't add much to this review, but like I mentioned before, this is a tale of discovery. I found something really interesting, unique, and, um... special in an unexpected place (the teen rack at my local library).

Should a non-[male-under-30] read this book? Should my wife (who is 30) read this book? Does my wife even know what "texting" is? Has she heard of Mountain Dew Code Red?

Even if you have a handle on texting, soft drink marketing, and pop music, you probably don't know what a squip is. You probably should.

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by anonymousThursday, December 8, 2005 [3:36 pm]

You're right-on in supporting this book (I saw the link for your review through Ned Vizzini's site, and I'm a fan of his so this is obviously a bit biased of an opinion). This book actually is funny for teen girls (and women in general) because you never realized that all this stuff is going on in the head of adolescent boys. It's like, whoa... sex isn't the only thing they think about? It really helps the female members of the human race see that guys are actually a lot like them, in the area of social concerns anyway. Girls often just worry about getting boys to like them and don't think the boys are having the exact same worries.
Not to mention it's a very funny and mostly true social commentary on high school, and it's very much "with the times", not like one of those health videos high schoolers have to watch at some point where the kids all are trapped in the 80s and look and act nothing like real kids today.
Anyway, I just wanted to say I liked your review and your willingness to give "teen literature" a chance.

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