Book Review: An Absolutely Remarkable Thing by Hank Green

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I adore Hank Green. He is smart and funny and charmingly nerdy. I love Crash Course and I find the Vlogbrothers videos to be immensely entertaining. I really admire his charitable efforts and his unflappable belief in the basic goodness of humanity. I don’t always entirely agree with his political views (I tend to be a little more radical, I guess), but I fully respect his right to have them.

I just finished reading his first book, An Absolutely Remarkable Thing. I wish I had something profound to say about it. I enjoyed it. It’s a fun, humorous story, with aliens and secret codes that all of humanity must work together to solve and whatnot. I liked his message: that human beings are basically good, for the most part, but also that fame can corrupt and dehumanize people. There were lots of cool, clever, nerdy puzzles throughout the story, which I think is where his scientific and analytical skills were really able to shine.

It is a first person narrative, from the point of view of a twenty-three-year-old girl who suddenly becomes famous when she discovers an alien robot thing standing on the sidewalk. It is very casual, almost diary-style. It is quite realistic and effective in its informality. But… it’s almost kind of a cop-out, in a way. It’s like a mockumentary in book-form, sort of a Blair Witch Project in print, which is to say, very effective in its realism but a little too easy. Probably, the writing style is intended to appeal to his target audience, which I suppose would be millennials. And perhaps it does. But when I read a book, I like to see a greater awareness. I like to see some sort of linguistic craftsmanship. If one is going to write an entire book (minus one chapter) from a single point of view, in my opinion, it ought to star a character with a certain above average level of self-awareness and also some empathy. Otherwise, as in this case, you get what seems like inelegant off-the-cuff writing, with a realistically disappointing amount of self reflection, and very little character development outside of the main one. It’s all about her: April May. Her feelings, her admitted avoidance of dealing with them in any constructive way, her own fame and self-centeredness. There are huge events going on in the world, but we only see how they affect her. There are other characters, but they are flat and lacking any depth or recognition as people because the narrator doesn’t seem to actually humanize them. This is all very true-to-life, as if it were actually written by a self-centered twenty-three-year-old, but I am not in the habit of reading the diaries of average self-centered twenty-three-year-olds. 

Some diaries are worth reading (Anais Nin’s come to mind), but most are not. Autobiographies tend to be more polished, but this was way too casual to be called polished, in my opinion. Although, if Hank Green were a girl, and if he had made First Contact, this would basically be his autobiography. But it actually reads more like a diary in the past tense.

I hate to say it, but when I was thirteen, I found Anne Frank’s diary to be shallow and underwhelming. It wasn’t all that informative about the events going on outside because she couldn’t see what was happening from her vantage point, nor could she fully comprehend them. And why should she have? I wouldn’t have wanted to at her age, in her situation. But just because she died terribly, it doesn’t make her silly schoolgirl crush some profound thing after the fact. I know it was supposed to make us feel more connected to Anne as a person, and therefore care about the atrocities that were going on at the time, but mostly it was just uncomfortable and embarrassing to read, and made me glad I didn’t keep a diary so no one could stumble upon it and read my stupid childish thoughts that were NEVER intended for public consumption.

Similarly, a book written in the casual diary-esque style of a young woman with no particular skill in analyzing either her own or others’ reality, does not make for great literature. Also, at least Anne Frank was a real person. This is a work of fiction. And just as April May gains a platform to put forth her views from her newly found celebrity status, Hank Green is riding on his fame in other areas (in which he legitimately does excell) to gain an audience for his writing efforts. I mean, if I’m honest, that’s why I read it.

And, unfortunately, these fundamental flaws were compounded in the final chapter. The author had a great chance to redeem himself as a writer, like an actor who has previously played unappealing roles but is suddenly given the part of a very different type of character. If the actor can step into the new role and play a new person, he can demonstrate his ability in the field. By switching the point of view to that off a different character, the book might have been saved, if he had used a new voice. But, alas, he did not. The tone of this new point of view sounded just like the rest of the book. It was disappointing.

But perhaps this was all intentional. I don’t know. He left the book on quite a cliff-hanger and, I admit, I do intend to read the sequel to see what happens. Maybe April May will grow into a more refined narrator, with a greater awareness of herself and empathy for others. I hope so. I will let you know how it goes.

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