‘An Absolutely Remarkable Thing’

A dear friend – and a Harvard PhD whose works on ‘how literature works’ inform my PhD thesis – wrote me yesterday to say I had to read Hank Green’s An Absolutely Remarkable Thing because it is “right up your alley” and “You are the one to interpret it!” I bought the book online and read it off my computer screen last night and this morning. I am writing a short review here — a break from Crimes of Grindelwald and Lethal White! — to recommend you read it, too, and that you think your way past the hard parts to consider its allegorical message about art (hence the title acronym), about the political and technological landscape in which we live, and about the agony of escaping the errors of our age for communion with transcendent reality.

After the jump I will write a brief synopsis of the wonderfully page-turning story (without spoiling it!), my thoughts about its meaning, and why reading it, when more than a few times in my case I persisted only with gritted teeth and eyeballs rolling, taught me something important about the difficulty the Harry Haters experienced in seeing the Christian content of the Hogwarts Saga.

Synopsis: From the book’s Amazon page

The Carls just appeared.
Roaming through New York City at three a.m., twenty-three-year-old April May stumbles across a giant sculpture. Delighted by its appearance and craftsmanship—like a ten-foot-tall Transformer wearing a suit of samurai armor—April and her friend, Andy, make a video with it, which Andy uploads to YouTube. The next day, April wakes up to a viral video and a new life. News quickly spreads that there are Carls in dozens of cities around the world—from Beijing to Buenos Aires—and April, as their first documentarian, finds herself at the center of an intense international media spotlight.
Seizing the opportunity to make her mark on the world, April now has to deal with the consequences her new particular brand of fame has on her relationships, her safety, and her own identity. And all eyes are on April to figure out not just what the Carls are, but what they want from us.
Compulsively entertaining and powerfully relevant, An Absolutely Remarkable Thing grapples with big themes, including how the social internet is changing fame, rhetoric, and radicalization; how our culture deals with fear and uncertainty; and how vilification and adoration spring for (sic) the same dehumanization that follows a life in the public eye. The beginning of an exciting fiction career, An Absolutely Remarkable Thing is a bold and insightful novel of now.

[And if you really don’t want to know anymore about the story than that, you should stop here. I am not going to reveal the ending, but I will touch on several plot points in what follows.]

The synopsis being a synopsis leaves out a lot. There are a bunch of Harry Potter echoes, for example, in the book, as you’d expect given the author’s and his famous brother’s celebrity in the Wizarding World fandom. April May’s discussion of what fame is — the Five Tiers of Fame today — and what it does to people will not seem strange to close readers of the Hogwarts Saga. The straw-man bad guy, too, is named Peter Petrawicki and we know that anyone with those initials is a pawn as much as they are a black hat, right?

The big echo, though, is that April May is the Chosen One, not picked out by some Prophetic voice embodied by Trelawney but by the extraterrestial intelligence that sent or just is the 64 Carl statues. April, at the start of the story at least, is a frustrated internet Design trench-worker for a start-up, a woman who loves and appreciates real art. She has to pay her bills, though, so while she has kept herself largely apart from the worlds of Twitter, social media, and, hold on to your hats, news, in pursuit of a clean heart with which to appreciate ‘high art,’ she chose to study design and branding rather than become an artist herself. Why she became the Chosen One, however, what the Carls saw in her, is largely the point of the book, so hold on to that in the back of your mind as you, if you’re like me, fly through your first reading.

Political/Technological Landscape: April is 23 years old, politically progressive, sexually promiscuous and everything contrary to ‘hetero-normative,’ a gamin who resides in Manhattan. This is a deep, deep Blue book, consequently, though written by a straight family man living in Montana, both because that is the only credible position of the first person narration and, I have to think, of the author, too. The novel is a leftist’s wish-fulfillment fantasy; believe it or don’t, but a heroic, selfless, and, most incredible, funny Hillary Clinton is the US President in Absolutely Remarkable Thing (ART). The Transformers films were more grounded in reality.

Having said that, as much as the in-your-face demonization of the ‘red’ or conservative representatives gets, the political messaging is not that the narrator is right (as in ‘correct’!). The reader is clued to that on multiple occasions by the narrator who is writing the book after the fact of the story’s events and clearly regrets her behaviors, myopia, and willful naivete. The serious reader or Christian has to get over the many and unbroken Deep Blue talking points that inform the story that almost overwhelm the tale (a) if he or she is to have any chance of geting to the ‘wow’ finish and (b) if that reader is to take the book as more than a political tract to excite the gormless ‘Resistance.’ Which it is not.

If anything, the conservative reactionaries portrayed as evil, loveless, fear-driven tools throughout the book, the ‘Defenders’ foil to the good guy ‘Dreamers’ being transparent stand-ins for those wanting open borders and DACA versus those who want laws to govern immigration, come out as the good guys in the end. Sort of! ART simultaneously celebrates the technological wonders that can unite the world while acknowledging that the intellectual technology of our iPhones and computers is re-wiring our organs of thinking and undestanding in ways that we do not understand and have embraced without careful, sober reflection.

Green’s novel acknowledges both the wonder of the global community of interaction made possible by the world wide web and the horrific costs to the individual person and communities caused by our subjection of what we are to our allegiance to virtual relationships instead of reality. ART is a novelist’s explosive exposition of Nicholas Carr’s The Shallows and Silicon Valley’s reluctant awareness of the escaped genie, back-equal-to-the-front of what they have wrought. The only voice of resistance to the “infectious dream” the Carls release into the world through April May, the heroine Pandora who recklessly opens the box, a clear allegory of iPhone and internet usage in the story, is the Defenders, the stand-ins for the political right in ART.

Art and Spirituality: The Carls, samurai statues made out of unknown material with border-line magical properties and unknown capacities, appear everywhere they land around the world all at once and without any hint of why they’re there or why. April May, our Chosen One, as we read in the synopsis recognizes them at first as art, as artwork needing interpretation, that is. Green’s decisions about the Carls’ appearance reflect his choice to make them otherworldly, exotic in an Eastern religions kind of way, signs of a greater power, mysterious in the sense of being inaccessible and unfathomable — and inspiring in those of good will and blessed with eyes to see a desire to understand them, even to grow nearer and relate with them.

They inspire, in brief, a religious response, what the Blue States readers of this book, its intended audience, will call “spirituality” because of its disdain for orthodox religious tradition, especially Christianity. That universal desire in human beings to transcend the ego-self for contact with what transcends our individual, accidental existence, the eternal as opposed to our ephemera, is what the best artwork fosters, fuels, and finishes, hence the sacred art of the great revelations and religious traditions and the better naturalist art of the last four centuries.

And without giving away too much, I think that is Green’s take-away message in the book, the “Knock, knock” of April’s hero’s journey and of the Carls inspiring her to take it is the intrusion of what is most Real, even Absolute, via art and story to wake us up out of our political and technological fixations and partisan ideologies.

Harry Haters and Christian Content: Which brings me to the last point, the one that made me decide to write this post, though it is already a New York Times best seller and one that doesn’t need a recommendation or interpretation from someone not part of its target audience.

Reading this book, my struggle to get through it, was a struggle I recognized as what the Christians who believed Harry Potter was the “gateway to the occult” had when they picked up one of the books. I felt all the triggers go off in my head as a traditional Christian about the content of this story that they did with the Hogwarts Saga set up as they were to object to the magic. Just as they, in the words of one Orthodox Christian bishop, “missed the spiritual forest for the magical trees,” so I gnashed my teeth and rent my garment at April May’s leftism, abuse of self and others, especially sexually, and her arrogant self-importance. “This is the heroine?” I kept asking myself.

Harry Haters couldn’t get pass the magic to get at the Christian content; anyone of traditional Christian belief or of conservative political bent (and, no, those two circles do not intersect as uniformly as you might think) will find the surface of this story insufferable, too, but I urge you if you are one of those types or both to give An Absolutely Remarkable Thing a serious chance, an open reading. If you do, I think, upon reflection afterwards, you will “get” the author’s remarkably subversive and respectful message to his audience of non-believers, leftists, iPhone addicts and the “sexually liberated,” a message about technology, political ideology of left and right but especially the left, and promiscuity as disease, even mental illness. Most important, I think you will hear in the closing two words of ART an invitation to open the door to understanding that the only means for transcendence in true art, not to mention life, is death to self, a transformed vision consequent to identification with the fabric of reality within us all.

I have only read the book once and I did it in one rushed read. If any of you want to discuss it further here, I will read it again with special attention to the names and their meaning which I suspect is key. I have been told the puzzles inside the infectious Dream are probably worth a close examination as well, but the names jump out out at you. ‘April May,’ the heroine, might well have been named ‘Anastasia’ for the death and resurrection role she plays. The person to whom she partners herself professionally but not personally is named ‘Andy,’ from the Greek word for ‘Man.’ April’s original same sex lover is named ‘Maya’ or ‘Delusion,’ and so on. The novel asks for an allegorical reading of the relation and intersection of Art, Man, and God — and how politics, media, government, and technology claim to be clarifying agents in our struggles to know and love positively but more often they become the biggest obstacles to a truly human life. 

I was reminded when I put the book down of what Rolf Dolbelli wrote in his essay ‘Avoid News’ about the delusion that interconnectivity means relationship and caring. What he says about ‘news’ equates to the moral of ART‘s morality tale about iPhones and the internet:

Kathleen Norris (even if I don’t share most of her ideas) said it best: “We may want to believe that we are still concerned, as our eyes drift from a news anchor announcing the latest atrocity to the NBA scores and stock market quotes streaming across the bottom of the screen. But the ceaseless bombardment of image and verbiage makes us impervious to caring.”

News wraps us in a warm global feeling. We are all world citizens. We are all connected. The planet is just one global village. We sing “We Are the World” and wave the little flame of our lighters in perfect harmony with thousands of others. This gives us a glowing, fuzzy feeling that delivers the illusion of caring but doesn’t get us anywhere. This allure of anything bespeaking global brotherhood smells like a gigantic chimera.

The fact is that consuming news does not make us more connected to each other. We are connected because we interact and trade.

As much as ART celebrates globalism and internet unity, it deplores the delusions of caring and community it fosters in individual addicts. Dolbelli’s point #9 about how news undermines the right-side-up “relationship of accomplishment and reputation” is also reflected in Green’s telling allegory of contemporary life as a wasteland of the famous and those paying attention to their vacuous celebrity sans achievement and wisdom. 

If you have read it, let me know what you think, especially if you want a more in depth discussion of the book at HogwartsProfessor. I am confident ART will be embraced by Harry Potter fandom — and be as misunderstood by that crowd as the Hogwarts Saga was by the Harry Haters. It is aimed at them, but less as a “Hurrah for our side!” than as an admonitory challenge. It is equally so, however, to those of a more theocentric and sober bearing as much as those readers use intellectual technology and embrace a partisan political identity as part of their faith commitment.

I look forward to reading your comments, questions, and corrections.


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