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September Discussion – The Universe Versus Alex Woods by Gavin Extence

The Universe Versus Alex WoodsThe Universe Versus Alex Woods is another book that we feel blurs the lines between Young Adult, New Adult and Adult fiction.  This novel was quite well received within the group but some of the initial thoughts were that the narrator does not sound like a typical fifteen year old.  Clearly Alex, the narrator, is an unusual boy who has had the unlikely experience of surviving a hit on the head from a meteorite.  We are not sure if the author is suggesting that Alex’s differences and quirky, philosophical character are just a part of who he is, or if he has evolved that way because of his accident and then circumstances. Certainly the hit on the head leads to his epilepsy and his subsequent forced periods of isolation which then impact upon his development.  It is a rare fifteen year old that reads or develops a great love for Kurt Vonnegut but we could see quite obviously the author’s own deep passion for Vonnegut’s body of works.

Some of you thought that at times Extence loses the narrative voice and pace by being too descriptive. He tends to tell the reader everything he knows about a topic such as epilepsy, splitting the atom and physics in general.  At times the tone is didactic and we were aware of the authorial voice coming through.  We were, however, very impressed that this is a debut novel and felt that the novel really picked up the pace and became funnier as it progressed; even at times when the content became more serious.  We thought the character of Ellie, the “emo” girl is a great foil for Alex’s deadpan delivery.  The novel also deals with the spectrum of autistic behaviours and while it is aimed at a different audience we related the feel of the novel and its sympathetic tone to The Rosie Project.  Those of us who have heard Graeme Simsion (the author of The Rosie Project) speak recently discussed his observations that we are not laughing at people who are different or show different behaviours but rather laughing at the events that occur because of these differences.

Although this is quite a humorous book it does deal with some very large issues such as life, death and assisted suicide.  The quote “I’m saying that death is the easiest thing in the world. It’s only dying that’s terrible”, resonated with our group and we discussed for quite some time the difficulties involved with seeing loved ones suffer and die after lengthy, debilitating illnesses.  We noted that in Australia requests for “do not resuscitate” may not be granted and also mentioned that the closest we have to assisted suicide is the withholding of food and increasing morphine and pain relief in a patient’s last few days. We commented how inadequate that was for relieving patient discomfort and pain.  We also discussed the role of organisations such as Dignitas in Switzerland and the process involved in accompanied or assisted suicide. Some of the group mentioned that the pro-euthanasia stance of the book meant it would be problematic to have in their school library, particularly in some church-based school systems.  Others from differing religious school systems said it would be a useful text to discuss in their schools in subjects such as Religion or Study of Religion that study units on ethics and morality.  It was suggested, however, that it might be difficult to just read passages out of context as part of the appeal of this novel is to go on the journey with Alex and Mr Peterson.  We noted that the foreshadowing of the death of Mr Peterson was handled very well in the scene with the death of his dog and Alex’s exposure to the accident and the dog’s peaceful passing.

We noted that once Alex makes the decision to support Mr Peterson that the quality of Mr Peterson’s life improves.  Once the burden of believing that he will end his life powerless and debilitated is removed, Mr Peterson is liberated.  He no longer hides his illness from his friends but instead embraces the time he has left in openness and honesty.  His comment, “There’s nothing you could have done. It was my choice and mine alone”, underpins the stance the author is taking here and we agreed that the journey undertaken by Alex and Mr Peterson may not be the journey for everyone but was presented as a respected choice. We acknowledged that the belief in the right to assisted suicide is an intensely personal, moral and ethical choice but felt that Mr Peterson’s choice was written in a peaceful and non-judgemental way.

We laughed at the description of the bookclub,

A book club for people interested in all or some of the following: morality, ecology, time travel, extra-terrestrial life, twentieth-century history, humanism, humor, et cetera.

and the way all the different personalities were gathered together to form the club.  The name “the secular church” also appealed to us.   The author very clearly values the power of literature.  Early on in the novel the reader is shown Alex’s isolation, “My world had become very small, and it stayed like that for a long, long time” and then witnesses how literature opened up his world, “When I read these books I no longer felt like I was confined to a very tiny world”.  Again, we thought that as very few young adults in our schools would have read or heard of Kurt Vonnegut certain sections were a little inaccessible.

We felt that while the main characters are quite well established and fleshed out there are certain stereotypes in this novel.  The bully Declan Mackenzie and the school Principal are quite one-dimensional and it was noted that the women in the novel are presented almost as caricatures – flakey (his mother, although she does redeem herself at the end of the novel), angsty (Ellie) or peculiar (Dr Monica).  It can be disappointing and frustrating when clever women who have achieved in the field of science, such as Dr Monica Weir, are presented as unkempt eccentrics who look like they are dressed from a “jumble sale” and we wondered why authors still feel it is necessary to perpetuate this stereotype of women in science.

We really enjoyed Extence’s wonderful turn of phrase, particularly when he discusses behaviours of school children.  Some of you thought the passages about being gay would be wonderful conversation starters with your students,

If you’re a boy, any display of sensitivity is gay. Compassion is gay. Crying is supergay. Reading is usually gay. Certain songs and types of music are gay. ‘Enola Gay’ would certainly be thought gay. Love songs are gay. Love itself is incredibly gay, as are any other heartfelt emotions. Singing is gay, but chanting is not gay. Wanking contests are not gay. Neither is all-male cuddling during specially designated periods in football matches or communal bathing thereafter. (I didn’t invent the rules of gay – I’m just telling you what they are).

Similarly, the passage about being different in high school is a great read aloud, discussion stimulator.

In case you didn’t know, in secondary school – especially in the early years of secondary school – diversity is not celebrated. In secondary school, being different is the worst crime you can commit. Actually, in secondary school, being different is pretty much the only crime you can commit. Most of the things the UN considers crimes are not considered crimes at secondary school. Being cruel is fine. Being brutal is fine. Being obnoxious is fine. Being superficial is especially fine. Explosive acts of violence are fine. Taking pleasure in the humiliation of others is fine. Holding someone’s head down the toilet is fine (and the weaker the someone, and the dirtier the toilet, the finer it is). None of these things will hurt your social standing. But being different – that’s unforgivable. Being different is the fast-track to Pariah Town. A pariah is someone who’s excluded from mainstream society. And if you know that at twelve years of age, you’re probably an inhabitant of Pariah Town.

We talked about all the reasons why Alex is different and noted a comment by one reviewer who said Alex’s character was like Harry Potter – without the wand.  It was thought that Extence has managed a fine balance of comedy and tragedy with this novel.  The novel begins with the end so we felt there is a lovely resolution at the end of the novel with the repercussions of Alex’s actions.  We concluded our discussion by talking about the impact of the media and the accusations of paedophilia, the “death pact”, “death tapes” and the resulting character assassination that ensued.

I had no father, no friends and a mother of dubious credentials and capability.  And then there was the small matter of my “brain damage”. There could be no doubt that my ethical abilities were compromised.

We also thought it was very fitting that Mr Peterson leaves his money for Alex to further his education.

Overall this book was greatly appreciated.  We thought it was a fabulous effort for a debut novelist and although there were some inconsistencies and flaws we felt it handled a very sensitive issue in a respectful, non-judgemental way.  Unfortunately, the many instances of swearing would mean that this could not be recommended in some schools as a class set but could certainly be on the shelves for general reading.