YA Corner: ‘Noggin’

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April 21, 2014 by Jason Seligson

By Jason Seligson

Noggin is not an easy novel to categorize. But this is actually a positive thing, because it’s a story that defies conventional genre norms. It’s a work of absurdist fiction, a contemporary coming-of-age story, and even a dash of light sci-fi. Somehow, it manages to be all these things at once, and still be one of the most innovative, unforgettable YA novels in recent memory.

The novel begins with its protagonist Travis Coates dying of cancer, and running out of options fast. In a final effort to save his life, Travis’ doctors suggest he undergo a groundbreaking-but-still-speculative medical procedure: having his head cryogenically frozen and reattached to another body. Travis agrees to the bizarre operation, and when he wakes up after being told that the procedure worked, he feels like no time has passed at all—but in reality, five years have passed.

For Travis, the experience of “dying” and waking up occurred in the blink of an eye; to the people he loves, it felt more like a lifetime. Travis’ journey becomes finding his own way in the world and coming to terms with the toll his absence took on his friends and family. Just because he gets a second chance at life doesn’t mean he also gets that missing time back—at least not in the way he wants. At first, he struggles to change everything; to go back to the way things were. But this over-zealousness to get back to where he left off only causes more emotional turmoil for himself and everyone around him.

Those five years effectively reshuffled all of Travis’ relationships. Despite appearances, nobody is exactly the same as they were five years earlier. Take his best friend Kyle, for example. When Travis was on his death bed, Kyle confessed that he was gay. Now, he’s back in the closet. Travis’ unwavering (and somewhat aggressive) persistence that Kyle be honest with himself does nothing but alienate his friend, but Kyle eventually decides to come out a second time once the two reconcile.

Reuniting with his girlfriend, Cate—who Travis learns has recently gotten engaged—proves to be more of a challenge. Cate is hesitant to see Travis for weeks after he wakes up; it takes Travis tracking her down at a karaoke bar one night for the two to first meet. Cate initially decides to periodically see Travis, but emphasizes that their relationship can’t be anything other than platonic. No matter what, Travis refuses to let the idea of he and Cate ending up together go. He even goes so far as proposing (in a hilarious scene) while he, Cate, and her fiancé are all out for coffee.

Then there are Travis’ parents. Noggin has a lovely supporting storyline about Travis’ mom and dad getting a divorce after his passing, but trying to keep it a secret after he wakes up. There’s a poignant scene in which Travis follows his father one night looking to catch him cheating on his mom; instead, he discovers that he’s been living in a small apartment with a room full of Travis’ old things.

Noggin is about the aftermath of resurrection, what happens when things mysteriously return to their proper place, yet still feel inexplicably out of place. It’s also about returning to one’s life after a hiatus—something everyone can relate to, whether or not they’ve ever had their head cryogenically frozen for half a decade. But the great thing about Travis’ story: however fantastical it sounds, it still feels completely relatable.

We’re all guilty of withdrawing from our own stories as we’re living them, whether that detachment is intentional or not. No matter how much we might want to hold onto the past, people grow and change; they get engaged; have kids; they grow up. And even though we may not realize it while it’s happening—we are all protagonists in our own stories—and we grow up too. Sometimes we don’t stick around long to witness how everyone else has changed. Maybe we move away from our hometown, or make new friends, leaving the old ones behind. Travis didn’t choose to leave anyone behind; it was beyond his control. But when he wakes up after a procedure that everyone thought was impossible, Travis gets a second chance. And watching what he does that is what makes the story so compelling.

So much of this book is about appreciating all the love we get in life, and learning to accept who gives us what. For Travis, that means making peace with Kyle, with his parent’s divorce, and even with Cate. He knows he needs to give her time, knows the futility of convincing her to marry him at this point in time, but he also wants time for himself. Ultimately, Travis needs to make peace with what’s happened, but for now, he needs to make up for lost time. This seems like something he needs to do for himself, but the nice thing is that he doesn’t need to do it alone.

I think that Noggin solidifies author John Corey Whaley as the master of YA male relationships. The male bonding between Cullen and Lucas was one of my favorite dynamics in Where Things Come Back, and I was thrilled that Kyle and Travis’ bond felt just as genuine. Travis also develops a strong relationship with Hatton, a girl-crazy kid who acts as a stand in for Kyle while Travis is back in high school. Hatton is mostly there for comic relief, but clearly cares about Travis and has a couple of standout scene-stealing moments, including his introduction into the story, in which he coins Travis’ nickname, “Noggin.”

This book is packed with so many gripping moments—Travis spending Thanksgiving with his family, learning about his parent’s divorce, and even the final scene as he tries to beat his old score at the arcade. His final revelation to Cate—that he needs to grow up—is a wonderfully satisfying note on which to end his story. Travis realizes that he has to catch up with the world; maybe there will be a future for he and Cate, maybe there won’t be, but heat least needs to take the time to reach that point for himself.

When he was dying in his first body in the hospital, Travis told his parents that he loved them because they took care of him every day. By the end of the novel, Travis has found his way to take care of them, at long last seeing the impact his absence had on everyone. It’s not a perfectly clean ending (no one said cryogenic head transplants resulted in any) but it is a satisfying one. Travis is a work in progress, but the comforting feeling he gets is that he’s not alone in that feeling. He’s got Kyle, Hatton, his parents, and plenty of others that are all looking for their own purpose. It’s just like Hatton says, “no one really knows how to exist. We’re all just meandering.”

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