A Review of Noggin by John Corey Whaley
Atheneum Books for Young Readers (Simon & Schuster), 2014
REBECCA, April 7, 2013
“Listen — Travis Coates was alive once and then he wasn’t. Now he’s alive again. Simple as that.
The in between part is still a little fuzzy, but he can tell you that, at some point or another, his head got chopped off and shoved into a freezer in Denver, Colorado. Five years later, it was reattached to some other guy’s body, and well, here he is. Despite all logic, he’s still 16 and everything and everyone around him has changed. That includes his bedroom, his parents, his best friend, and his girlfriend. Or maybe she’s not his girlfriend anymore? That’s a bit fuzzy too.
Looks like if the new Travis and the old Travis are ever going to find a way to exist together, then there are going to be a few more scars. Oh well, you only live twice.” (Goodreads)
Noggin, John Corey Whaley’s second novel, is a perfectly executed book. Just because a book starts out with a sixteen-year-old getting his head chopped off and then sewn onto another dude’s body doesn’t mean that Noggin isn’t a sensitive-as-hell story of teen angst. Like most really good premises, rather, the head-on-another-dude’s-body is both the catalyst for an interesting plot and a metaphor for teen alienation.
Travis Coates was dying of cancer. He’d been sick for a long time and was just about to give up when a scientist approached him about donating his body (well, his head) to science, suggesting that, in fifty or sixty years, when medical science had progressed, they could reattach Travis’ head to a healthy body and give him another chance at life. Travis, in an attempt to give his parents at least some hope that this wasn’t the end of the road, agreed. After all, what does he have to lose. Well, his head (yes, I’m going to keep doing that).
Instead of sixty years, however, Travis is brought back to life after five. So, instead of awakening to a world where he can actually start over, he finds himself back in his old life, only everyone else—his parents, his best friend, Kyle, and his girlfriend, Cate—has moved on.
So, we have the story of Travis’ reaction to being only the second human ever brought back to life through head reattachment and all its physical and social complications. And, alongside it, we have the story of Travis trying desperately to re-inhabit an old life that has moved forward without him, and finding, eventually, that he has to create a new one.
“It was sort of like my head had been photoshopped onto someone else. . . . Just so you know: yeah, shit got weird. Imagine most of you is suddenly someone else, and this is the first moment of privacy you’ve gotten. The weirdest part, I guess, wasn’t seeing my new chest or stomach or legs. It wasn’t turning around to see that someone else’s ass was there below someone else’s back. And, surprisingly, it wasn’t the moment I dared to just go for it and take a good, long look at my new dick. Sure, it was weird, but it wasn’t disappointing at all, to be quite honest. The weirdest part, truly, was realizing that I’d been doing all this . . . with hands that were different from my hands, with hands that had never touched Cate or knuckle-bumped with Kyle or opened my locker at school” (26).
Because Travis is sixteen, the people he most wants to see are Kyle and Cate, neither of whom contact him soon after he wakes up. When he does get in touch with them, we get some of the most heartbreaking scenes of the novel. For Kyle and Cate, it has been five years since their best friend died, so Travis’ reappearance in their lives stirs up some deep waters—including the fact that Kyle told Travis a secret before he died, thinking he would take it to the grave, and now Travis is back. For Travis, though, it’s only been a few days since he last saw Kyle and Cate, and their absence feels like they’ve been suddenly ripped away.
As Travis starts back at school again, he slowly rekindles his relationships with Kyle and Cate, who is now engaged to another man. Sixteen-year-old Travis’ attempts to win back twenty-one-year-old Cate’s affection feel incredibly real, including a great moment where Cate tells him to stop acting immature and he explodes at her, yelling that he isn’t being immature—he’s being sixteen.
Five years is a perfectly awkward time gap with which Whaley has cursed Travis, because the people who love him haven’t changed enough to start with him anew, but have changed enough that they cannot slide back into their relationships easily. And, though the voice of Noggin is quite funny, it’s a really melancholy story about how relationships change and the ways that we can neither rewind nor fast forward, but must each always live only in our present. As much as Travis wants to reconnect with the Kyle and Cate who were his dearest friends, he has to build new relationships with them if he hopes to have any at all.
Whaley’s prose is pitch perfect—snappy and funny and dripping in angst. Tone-wise, it reminded me a bit of Andrew Smith, one of my all-time favorite authors, and I have a feeling that Travis Coates and Winger‘s Ryan Dean West and Grasshopper Jungle‘s Austin Szerba would all be friends. Especially in the scenes where we see Travis’ life with Kyle and Cate before he died (the first time), Whaley does a great job of showing us why Travis would be so sad to lose friends like them, because they’re straight-up great.
In one amusing scene, Travis’ parents take him shopping for back-to-school clothes, since they donated his after he died, and Travis is confused by the skinny jean trend:
“These are pretty tight,” I said, walking out to model a pair of jeans for my mom.
“It’s the style.”
“I don’t understand. I can hardly move.”
“Do you want to try a bigger size?”
I tried the bigger size, and even though they were easier to button, they still hugged me all weird around the thighs.
“Are these girl jeans, Mom?”
“No, Travis. I told you. It’s what everyone wears now. Boys and girls.”
“We can just take him over to J. Crew and get him some more grown-up clothes, don’t you think?” Dad suggested. . . .
“He’s not a grown-up, Ray. He’s sixteen. He’s not going to school dressed like an accountant.”
“Yeah, Dad. I’ll go to school dressed in tight pants like a girl or I won’t go at all” (53).
When I say that Noggin is a perfectly-executed book, though, I don’t just mean that Whaley does a good job making the most of a cool and wacky concept (which he does). I also have to talk about one of his stylistic choices. The last sentence of each chapter becomes the title and topic of the next chapter. So, the last sentence of chapter 2 is “How could it feel like nothing had changed at all when I wasn’t me from the neck down?” and then chapter 3 is titled “From the Neck Down,” and describes Travis’ new body, part of which I quoted above. I love the way this concatenation resignifies a concept from one chapter and makes it the subject of the next. It’s as if Whaley sutures the body of one chapter onto the head of the next, making them so inextricable that the reader can’t do anything but read on, move forward. This stylistic enactment of Travis’ head being attached to another’s body delighted me every time it happened.
Noggin is exactly the kind of book I want to hand to anyone who thinks speculative fiction means books that are driven more by concept than by heart (well, head—and I’m out!). While its emotional stakes will feel deep and familiar, Whaley gets at them in a way that you have definitely never read before.
Winger (Winger #1) by Andrew Smith (2013). Ryan Dean West, our narrator, is a fourteen-year-old junior in high school who’s in love with his best friend, Annie, and making new friends on the rugby team. Like Travis, he’s dealing with being younger than his peers (though not for such arcane reasons) and having to renegotiate who his friends are. ADORE Winger! My full review is HERE.
King of the Screwups by K.L. Going (2009). Another awesome novel with a character who’s trying to start over. Liam Gellar is a popular kid whose dad thinks he’s a screwup. When he gets in trouble and moves in with his gay, glam rock DJ uncle, he decides that in order to make his dad proud, he’ll have to give himself a makeover: as an unpopular kid. But it’s not as easy as Liam thinks to be unpopular, and he finds himself screwing up even that. King of the Screwups is also similar in tone, with its great mixture of humor and melancholy. My full review is HERE.
procured from: I received an ARC of this book from the publisher (thanks!) in exchange for an honest review. John Corey Whaley’s Noggin will be available tomorrow.