Deep with all of us there is a void in this shape of whatever it is we most crave, need or want.
Not all of us will admit it’s there of course, or if we do, be largely aware of the shape it takes, but it is there nonetheless, a truth that April May, the protagonist in Hank Green’s impressive debut novel An Absolutely Remarkable Thing, comes hard up against whether she likes it or not, when she is the unwitting discoverer of a giant might-be-alien robot outside a Chipotle at 23rd and Lexington in the heart of Manhattan.
A graphic designer who’s a small “L” liberal, the kind of passionate believer in artistic purity who immediately loses interest in anything that has corporate intent or monetary backing, she has somehow ended up working long hours at a start-up which is how she comes to be on the streets of New York City at 3 a.m. one day where she spots the Carl, as she mischievously dubs him, standing in the middle of the footpath.
Believing the Carl to be an art project of some kind, or perhaps a massive prop in an advertising campaign, April summons best friend Andy Skampt, a fellow art school graduate and avid vlogger with his housemate Jason, to film the world’s first encounter with the motionless, unspeaking statue, with whom she has a one-way spirited filmed “conversation”.
“All of those strong emotions dissolved into sadness then. Maya was clearly starting to cry as she turned away from me and walked toward her bedroom door. She got there and looked back, her eyes puffy already and said, softly, ‘Oh god, April, you really have no idea, do you? You have no idea what this is really about? You’re just trying to find an audience whole will love you and I’m not enough. Well, this isn’t going to be enough either, but I guess you’ll just have to go and find out.'” (P. 117)
This piece of impromptu guerilla-style filming which is nothing more than a lark by someone who has no desire or need, so she believes, for fame, money, adulation or power, soon goes viral, as is the way of things in our gloriously interconnected digital age, and April soon finds herself in the very place she always loathed, decried and actively fought against.
Interestingly, and to her great consternation, she finds that she likes it, happily wallowing in the endless online and media obsession with who she is, what she knows and how funny/clever/insightful she can be, and becoming addicted to the number of followers, interactions and the profile she gains.
This unexpected notoriety, which she can’t break away from, though there are many times when she hates it, brings her money, media presence, fame (which she is savvy enough to dissect even as she remains very much in its web), placing great pressure in the process on her close friendships and her relationship with Maya, a fellow art schooler who became a housemate before becoming her girlfriend.
It is, in many ways, the story of our digital age, when the smallest of somethings become absolutely, remarkable things simply by the sheer unwavering, though often temporary, interest of millions upon millions of people, and the power of certain people to harness and grow that smartphone-fuelled attention.
Like a lot of great science fiction, An Absolutely Remarkable Thing, may have robots, aliens, First Contact and the eerie yet exciting sense that we are not alone, but as those of us who love the genre must oft explain to those who see it as simply all the things just mentioned, the genre is always, done right anyway, an incisive, sometimes scathing commentary on the messy act of being human.
In this case, the very messy act of being April May, a brilliantly-clever, attractive bisexual woman (these are all self-described elements by the characters so relax, no objectifying going on here) who admits, more than once, she is not the exemplar of the human race; someone who can’t hold a relationship together, who isn’t sure what she wants to do with her life or being at the tender age of 23, and who loves and hate the creature she becomes in the harsh yet addictive glare of the social media spotlight.
Green’s masterstroke in this wholly-engaging book, which adroitly concerns itself with humanity’s simultaneous capacity for elevating greatness and self-destructive smallness, is creating a protagonist in April May who makes as many mistakes, if not more so, than she makes wise and correct decisions.
She doesn’t think she’s all that likeable, a self-hatred that fuels much of what she does and achieves in the book, but she is, very down-to-earth, excitable, passionate, and a believer that we are better than we think we are, an optimistic assessment of the world, and the galaxy as it turns out, that sees her believing that the Carls, for there are 64 of them in total spread through the cities of the world, are her for our good and not our downfall. (It looks like we’re more than capable of taking care of that particular task by ourselves as the fascination with the Carls frighteningly but predictably polarises into those who believe the best of our new robotic sentinels, and those, known as the Defenders and led by the tabloid-sensationalist Peter Petrawicki, who see only terminal menace and threat.)
“I try not to regret any of what has happened to me in the last few years. I don’t know if I’d be happier or if the world would be a better place if I hadn’t involved myself (or the universe hadn’t involved me”, but that’s OK. What I do regret is how I engaged with the Defenders. In the weeks and months before July 13, I distilled a diverse group of individuals down to a few of their beliefs. Those beliefs were based on fear, and so all my arguments began and ended with the same thought: You’re all cowards. I didn’t say those exact words out loud, but they heard them anyway. The people who supported Carl and supported me heard it too, and they loved it. They wanted me to say it all the time. Reasoned, caring conversations that considered the complexity of other perspectives didn’t get views. Rants did. Outrage did. Simplicity did. So, simple, outraged rants is what I gave people.” (P. 213)
Green, the brother of YA author John Green with whom he collaborates on all sorts of online video material, doesn’t once fall into any kind of narrative-derailing polemic trap.
It’s clear which side he falls on, but the book is never dominated or sidetracked by that, retaining a freewheeling honesty and glaringly-honest self-reflective intent that keeps event rolling along, related by April with disarming truthfulness and an after-the-fact willingness to admit when she has erred and by what kind of regretful margin, in a page-turningly compulsive way.
She may not realise how great the void within her is at first, nor how that ravenous void drives so much of what she does throughout the book, but she owns up to it eventually, giving the book as air of soul-cleaning confessional as much as a pithy, insightful commentary on the fallibilities and fantastic aspects of humanity.
As to whether Carl is an alien, and what he wants and why he wants April May in particular, well that is best left to the revelations in this delightfully-engaging book which combines a lighthearted sense of fun, and self-deprecatory honesty with some blistering takedowns of the human condition, pretty much all self-admitted, and some sci-fi sensibilities that offers up a wholly unique-read that doesn’t damn people in general nor the likably fallible April May in particular, but which in the midst of a rollicking but reflective story, asks us what it is we really want and how we want to get it, and whether, when all is said and done, it is all worth it, alien robots or otherwise.