The Big Crunch: A Book Report. Sort of.

To reiterate very briefly, I am currently revising Paper Valentine. It’s new and exciting and lots of fun, BUT. It definitely cuts into the amount of time I can devote to other things. For instance, blogging.*

I don’t want to neglect the blog entirely though, because I like it, and I like you guys. So, here is what I’m going to do. I’ve been thinking for awhile that I’d really like to put together a short series on Books High-School Brenna Would Have Loved (except they didn’t exist yet), and this seems like a good an opportunity.

The thing is, when I was in high school, YA was kind of—kind of—gaining a foothold, but choices were still mostly limited to either A Separate Peace or I Know What You Did Last Summer.**

So I read those. And everything by Robert Cormier. And lots and lots of books that were technically for adults. And those were all good things to read, but there’s still a wistful little part of me that wishes I’d had the YA books that exist right-now-this-minute. I just would have loved so much of what’s been published in the last decade.

The book I want to talk about today is The Big Crunch by Pete Hautman . It came out last year, and I can safely tell you that it would have been 16-year-old Brenna’s favorite-favorite book of all time.

big crunch

It’s smart and complicated and romantic in the most unromantic way. It’s about people who are NOT good with feelings, who do NOT think or do or say the perfect things. People who are not outrageously beautiful or charming, who are intense and prickly and make mistakes, who really, really suck at emotional intimacy, and still have to bite the bullet and do it anyway, because that’s kind of how the world works.

It’s a story about love, but love as it appears to the aggressively-cerebral, messy and unmanageable, with all kinds of pointy edges. And as we know, that is my favorite kind.

So okay, let’s back up for just a second.

No, I don’t think the purpose of novels is to educate, but yes, I think they do that anyway, always, regardless of intention. When I was a teenager, I was constantly using what I read as a sounding board for what I thought and felt and what I suspected the world might actually be like, and it didn’t really matter what a book’s intended message was.

For instance, if One Flew Over The Cuckoo’s Nest were meant to teach anything, its central lesson would probably fall under the heading of Standing up to Authority is Dangerous but Necessary, or else Mental Institutions Were Really Bad in the 60’s, but that wasn’t how I read it at the time. To me, the systematic breaking down of the inmates and the complex interactions between Nurse Ratched and Chief Broom and RP McMurphy—that was all just stuff I could use in my everyday life. It was like a really disturbing metaphor for high school. Yes, I learned about high school from One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest. I actually just said that.

But the thing is, I didn’t find a lot of books that taught me pertinent things about relationships. Pertinent to me, I mean. Personal. Integral.

Here is the exact place where I fell in love with The Big Crunch. It is roughly ten pages in. So, love happened relatively quickly, is what I’m saying.

There were several alternate Junes: Sarcastic June, Scornful June, Guilty June, and Fearful June. She also had Pragmatic June, who could say, I did not choose to be here. I just want to have some fun, and get through the day, and move on.

You have no true feelings, said Scornful June. You are hollow inside.

“I do too feel,” June whispered.

Like you would even know what real feelings are, said Sarcastic June.

June feared that Sarcastic June was right. Her feelings lacked depth. She knew that some people experienced feelings of such power and intensity that they could do anything—climb a mountain, commit hara-kiri, sacrifice a loved one—anything. June could not imagine herself doing anything like that.

I’ll be honest, it’s pretty rare that I find emotional representations of myself in books. This is less a function of being a special, special snowflake, and more a function of being, as Scornful June says, hollow inside.

Now, obviously I am not and have never been hollow inside, but it took me a long time to figure that out, mostly because I wasn’t particularly aware of things like emotional intimacy and … feelings. I found them uncomfortable, irrational, and so, largely irrelevant. And yes, I recognized that this was weird (mostly because it wasn’t a condition I ever encountered in books, movies, or people who weren’t me). But I didn’t know what to do about it.

I don’t think it’s too big a stretch to say that at 16, this book might have actually changed my life. One of the really fantastic things about books is that they give you a chance to see someone else having your conversation—whatever that conversation is. That person can go places and make decisions you can’t. And even though you know it’s not real when the character makes a makes an astounding personal discovery, or arrives at an answer … it kind of is.

What about you? Do you have books you wish had existed earlier? That did exist when you needed them? That told you something important—about yourself or someone else?

*Also, wearing matching socks.

**This is not to disparage either title—they are both kind of spectacular in their own ways. I love shiny-glossy horror novels with a love that is more than a love, and to this day, my sister is bound and determined to have a son so she can name him Phineas.

But my point stands.

15 thoughts on “The Big Crunch: A Book Report. Sort of.

    • Yay—now you can read it! And we can talk about it! And you will have a new understanding of why, whenever I write romance, it’s very non-romancy and in fact, kind of uncomfortable.

      Also, I have it on ereader too, which was great for the instant gratification factor, but which makes me sad because I keep wanting to casually flip to various passages, and on the ereader, there really is no casual flipping. Maggie says maybe she can get me a copy though, because they’re doing an event together in a few months.

  1. I put this on my to read list forever ago. I’m moving it up the list.

    Also, did you not read Christopher Pike in high school? I LOVED him then. Pretty much the only “teen” books I read then.

    • Oh, I was deeply, profoundly *obsessed* with Christopher Pike when I was 11 and 12, which gave me the possibly most unrealistic view of all time as to what high school might be like.

      Meaning, I got there and found out that no one was sacrificing anyone else to demons, everyone was *not* secretly sleeping with their long-lost twin brother, and even the people who sold drugs were awkward, juvenile, and mostly pretty bad at it—so not remotely like the glamorous and powerful cocaine cartels of Christopher-Pike land! It was honestly kind of a disappointment.

      • Ah yes, the cocaine! I started him in junior high too and it’s amazing how much of that stuff self-edits because I really did not remember just how much sex and drugs were in his books! I was all about the murders and the monsters and the death. *sigh* The good old days.

  2. I was trying to pin down which books had the most influence in my life in high school, and I’ve just realized that it was totally Holly Black’s Modern Fairytale series. Not because they were super profound or anything, even though I could totally make an argument that they are, but just because they were one of my first steps toward developing an appriciation of the gritty and beautiful. You know, the dark and scary and dead sexy? Yup. I read them when I was like 14 and it changed my whole out look. I started to notice how pretty the colors on oil slicks are, and thinking that the color of blood is incredible. I started to find my own darkness more interesting and less scary.
    That sounds really unhealthy, now that I’m saying it. But it was something I desperately needed at the time, because I was feeling like an alien and her books were like “Psh. Being freaky is the best. Also, hot fairy guys!”

    • I was slightly too old for those to have been around when I was in high school, which is a shame, because I just know I would have loved them!

      I was so obsessed with the idea of juxtaposition (so much so that when I made lists of favorite words, that was always at the top), and I loved contrasts between the fragile and glittery and then the industrial and the dirty. (Apparently still do. Hello, Brenna’s books. Hello.)

  3. Late to this post! I’m not so very far out of high school (I graduated in 06), so I feel like I had a pretty wide range of YA available to me thematically. I actually feel a little jaded about the current boom in YA sometimes, though. I feel like it’s harder for me to find books that I’m excited about than it was when I was 16. A lot of the YA I’ve read lately is fine, well-written, but doesn’t have that…spark that makes me want to tell EVERYONE. But that might also be because I was 16! I’m not sure.

    Probably the most influential book I read as a teenager was KINDRED by Octavia Butler, but it’s not YA. I was (am) interested in science fiction and fantasy, but I could count on both hands the number of nonwhite, nonmale protagonists I’d read in YA science fiction and fantasy, let alone nonwhite and nonmale authors. This was something that became more and more obvious to me the more I read– I have distinct memories of reading THE EAR, THE EYE AND THE ARM by Nancy Farmer and realizing as I got older that books like it were the exception, not the norm. Reading KINDRED was my “whoa, there really are other people out there who think like me” experience. From there I went on to Delaney, LeGuin, etc., but KINDRED was my first exposure. In the last 5 or 6 years since I graduated, though, there seems to be more of a shift towards all types of diversity in speculative fiction, which is nice. I’m beginning to see more books in which you have nonwhite protagonists, but the book is not About the fact that they’re not white, if that makes sense. So, I guess I’ll say I wish links like this:

    had been available when I was 12/13.

    • Okay, so I really need to read KINDRED! I consider the fact that I haven’t to be one of my Literary Deficits (along with For Whom the Bell Tolls. Only, I don’t really want to read For Whom the Bell Tolls, so maybe I’ll change it to something more delicious, like The Book of Lost Things.)

      That is such a fantastic article and yes—I didn’t even start seeing that type of discourse until I was taking literary criticism classes in college, and at that point, I just felt like “Wait, this is a thing, and I’ve been so, so oblivious this whole time? Also, we’re allowed to pull books apart and lay them out on the table this way?”

      (So basically, I fell in love with literary criticism because it satisfied the same part of my brain that really-really liked dissection. Only there was less blood.)

  4. YES absolutely… I wish “The Knife of Never Letting Go” by Patrick Ness had been out around the time I was sixteen because I just didn’t get how I was supposed to walk the line between what people recognise as gay and a straight guy who knows how to feel… I’ve always been the latter but been categorised by the former. These days I hardly care about categorical thinking, but it would have been nice to have felt that comraderie at the age where I felt most alone. It’s nonetheless gratifying to know that books that WOULD have made me feel less lonely are now out there for the minority of people who are like me as I was…
    And I am definitely going to go buy this book now.

    • Wow, this really just got me thinking about how rigidly categorized things can feel when you’re a teenager—even when you intellectually *know* that the category isn’t really a true thing, it just feels so inevitable! And I absolutely used books to debunk those categories and ideas, but sometimes it still didn’t seem like enough. I just really, really like the way that books can sort of bear witness to a thing, at least enough to prove that even if a person’s experience isn’t universal, it’s still completely valid.

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