Lange's debut novel works with a profound mixture of crucial topics: obesity, bullying, the power of the internet, parenting woes, and the power of music. If you suspect this book is a mess because it attempts to work all of these ingredients together, you suspect wrong. (Also, that's my only food related metaphor for this review. I promise. Oh wait, Promise is a non-dairy spread. argh!)
Back on target.
Butter, the protagonist, walks a fine line of being sympathetic and unsympathetic. He's obese and relatively okay with it, though plenty of things in his life cause him to question his lifestyle. It's not difficult to see why he's complacent, since his mother obsesses over his eating habits but seems incapable of controlling his diet in a meaningful way (aside from cutting out sugar at one point). I could see a version of this book wherein Butter drives readers away, but there's something about him that's vulnerable without being forced. Butter doesn't begin to change his behavior until he finds an online forum featuring comments from his friends at school, who vote him Most Likely to Die of a Heart Attack. He's forced to see himself through the eyes of his peers -- and the internet certainly can make that feeling sharp and profound. He doesn't like what he sees (and reads). So he decides to give up.
Now, it's never completely clear whether Butter truly meant to kill himself live on New Year's Eve or if he meant to just create another buffer around himself by showing people he knew what they said/thought about him. Butter goes back and forth, which means I go back and forth as well. In the end, it doesn't matter what his INITIAL intention is, just what he ultimately chooses to do. I think the book succeeds because of Butter's ambivalence to his own decision. The threat to kill himself, though, needs to feel possible, and Butter gathers information that suggests he is planning his suicide, though, he's more than willing to back off when something positive happens in his life (weight loss, cute girl is nice to him, etc).
In many ways, the specter of death is one of the most crucial aspects of life's meaning. Without death, life carries on endlessly. Death forces us to ponder meaning, purpose, morality, and more, simply because we know we'll run out of time eventually. (Anyone who's read any Modernist literature knows the importance of death to literary characters. It's the fuel for much philosophizing.)
Here, Butter decides to eat himself over the edge and it causes him to change his behavior. He gains popularity, gains access to the girl he's had a crush on from afar (and a relationship over the internet), he gains a sense of worth. All because he decided his life had no worth.
As the plot progresses, Lange rightly focuses on Butter and his struggle as opposed to the various social issues the novel threads together. I found his complexity and hypocrisy very satisfying more so because Lange does not obsess on certain aspects of the story -- the power of the internet, as well as parenting woes. In lesser hands, a certain amount of moralizing and demonizing would occur to be sure the reader understood that the internet is bad or that parents are just "doing their best." While I can't answer for other readers, I never felt Butter's parents were simply good or bad, just frustrated (and, for me, frustrating in their believable behaviors). Nor did I find Butter's experience on the internet to be a judgment of the internet itself, (though it plays a huge role in Butter's self-esteem issues, Lange is clear that the internet both enhances and harms his self-worth).
I think Butter is a fantastic addition to books about suicide and bullying because it doesn't pander and it allows its characters to be real, especially towards the climax when Butter and Anna have a few key conversations. While the ending might feel a little too happy, I believe Lange earns the feelings because she wasn't afraid to let Butter be real in the rest of the novel.
Saturday, October 13, 2012
I've got a post over at The Crowe's Nest (my agent's blog) about the connection between reading and mental health. As a college adjunct who teaches literature, I see the way reading gives students a chance to talk about mental health -- both as a part of stories and as part of their own lives -- in a productive way.
Please check it out and comment! Thanks!
Please check it out and comment! Thanks!