I’ve been in a bad book funk, of late. Of the last four books I’ve read, I struggled to get through two of them, and bailed on two others, including the sequel to one of my all-time favorite novels (it was crushingly bad!). It happens occasionally, and whenever it does, I start to blame myself. Maybe I’m just not in the right headspace for a book right now, I think. Maybe I’ve forgotten how to read. And then a great book like Hank Green’s An Absolutely Remarkable Thing comes along and completely revives my passion for reading.
Hank Green is the brother of novelist John Green, and I understand that they have a popular YouTube channel together. I don’t follow it, nor do I follow the life of John Green outside of the pages of his novels. I know nothing about them other than they are from Indiana (I think). I like John Green’s books, though, and I admit that I picked up Hank Green’s new novel because he is John’s brother, and I thought at the very least that An Absolutely Remarkable Thing would be a likable, sweet, funny coming-of-age romance that would temporarily lift my book funk.
This is not that. An Absolutely Remarkable Thing is a scathing indictment of our current political culture disguised as an alien invasion novel. There’s a story here, and it’s a good one, but it’s largely a vessel for confronting the challenges we face living in a world where we are no longer humans but weapons being used in an ongoing culture war for which the only winners are those who profit in terms of either money, power, or fame. It’s also a really smart treatise on the nature of celebrity, and how that power can be wielded for good, evil, or both, often without the celebrity’s knowledge.
I was absolutely blown away by this book.
The story centers on April May, an art-school graduate living in New York City and working long hours in an entry-level position. She is the first to discover in the middle of the night the presence of a large and strange statue that materializes on a Manhattan sidewalk. She calls her best friend Andy, who creates a fairly benign video of April with the statue that ends up going viral the next morning when it is revealed that 64 of these statues have appeared simultaneously across the globe. They are called “The Carls,” and mostly by virtue of being the first to stumble upon one of these Carls and having a video of it uploaded, April May becomes an instant online celebrity.
The book itself is about these Carls, and it’s about April May, and how she navigates this newfound fame, which explodes as the media makes her into a massive celebrity based almost entirely on her proximity to the Carls. The Carls, we soon find out, are alien in nature, and they essentially administer a scavenger hunt to the entire world. But truly, the Carls are a proxy for politics, and it really could have been anything. The point of An Absolutely Remarkable Thing is not the alien invasion; it’s the way that the world divides itself into two sides — those who believe the Carls are friendly, and those who think they are dangerous — and how the media fuels that argument. For social media, for cable news, for publishing, etc., it’s not about the Carls. It’s about the debate, and it is to the media’s advantage to pit people against each other.
Indeed, the media is not in the business of finding solutions; it’s in the business of forcing people into taking sides and sometimes, we get so entrenched in our own side, that we end up taking positions that we may not even care about or believe in. Let me explain by example. Take Greek Yogurt, for instance. Maybe you don’t have much of an opinion on Greek Yogurt, but maybe a reporter approaches you and asks, “What are your thoughts on Greek Yogurt?” and you say, “Oh, it’s fine. I like it OK,” but then that same reporter finds another guy who says, “Screw you! You Greek Yogurt loving Commie bastard. If you love Greek Yogurt, then you hate America!” and instead of shaking your head and walking away from that argument — “What? Who cares about Greek Yogurt? It’s not worth the argument” — our culture has been primed to take the bait. So, we instinctively defend our positions, we dig in. We become the Greek Yogurt Truthers! and suddenly, the world is divided between those who love Greek Yogurt and those who hate it, and we are all willing to die on that Greek Yogurt hill!
We become weapons in this war of divisiveness, and we’ve all fallen for it. Hank Green never once mentions Trump or Democrats or Republicans in An Absolutely Remarkable Thing, but the message is loud and clear. The problem is not just Trump — who is the guy who yells, “If you love Greek Yogurt, you hate America!” — it’s also the way the media insists on engaging in that argument, on having pundits on to debate it, forcing viewers into taking sides. But who benefits from that? CNN. Fox News. The NYTimes. Donald Trump. Rupert Murdoch. Nike. Mark Zuckerberg. Jack Dorsey. Disqus. Pajiba (though in our case, the benefit is in TENS of dollars).
That’s what An Absolutely Remarkable Thing endeavors to excavate, and it does so brilliantly, shining a bright light on the modern state of discourse and, in an entertaining, clever, funny, and engaging way, explains how it is that we got here. It’s the 49th book I’ve read in 2018, and it’s easily one of my three favorites. It’s Jonathan Swift by way of … John Green, and it is absolutely remarkable.
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