This novel was a very positive surprise. It operates on two quite different levels: the level at which most of us function most of the time and the level at which some of us operate some of the time in order to manage to survive.
On the level on which most of us function most of the time (or all of the time) there is a another life which exists which we don’t acknowledge to most of our friends. This is the level upon which the key characters in this novel function most of the time in order to be able to tolerate the rest of the world. The latter includes their parents.
The main characters are Gustav and Stanzi and the secondary characters are China Knowles and Lansdale Cruise. There are some minor characters and these include Patricia and Ken.
The first division is a prologue divided into three sections. Each section begins in a slightly different way:
1. Gavin is building a helicopter.
2. Gavin believes his helicopter is invisible, and because he believes it, it is so.
3. Gavin is building a red helicopter. It is not invisible. If I want I can see it on Tuesdays.
The above three divisions are all written by Stanzi who is Gustav’s best friend. Stanzi believes that Gustav is a genius but her mother, Mama, believes that Gustav is “mad crazy”. Mama “says lies about Gustav like “That boy isn’t right in the head” or “He’s going to end up in the looney tunes if he’s not careful.”
Stanzi’s parents, Mama and Pop, take vacations. Sometimes they take Stanzi who is a senior in high school. When they went to Newtown, Connecticut they wanted to go alone. They asked if she could heat up her own TV dinners and stay safe overnight. Newtown was where the 2013 Sandy Hook massacre was. Stanzi can’t go to anymore such sites. She has been to Columbine and Red Lake, Minnesota and even to Dunblane, Scotland. She can’t go to anymore.
“China says she can feel her cells. China is my best friend. China is inside out, so I bet she knows more about her cells than anyone.”
“Halfway to Gustav’s house, a man steps out from behind a bush and asks me if I want to buy an H. I say I do not. …How about a K? he asks. …I keep walking…but I can see the details that tell me he is an animal.”
“Sometimes when I look at Gustav, I can picture him twenty years from now with a wife and kids – all of them flying around in his helicopter. I write them letters. The whole family. I write them postcards from my parents’ creepy trips.”
The school has been getting bomb threats. The most recent one has been in a box and was sent with two things: a hex nut from a helicopter kit and a dehydrated frog liver. Suspicious? After the recorded message is finished, the students are escorted outside. The bomb threats come daily, sometimes twice daily. There is always a police car outside the school.
“I am China – the girl who swallowed herself. I just opened my mouth one day and wrapped it around my ears and the rest of me. Now I live inside myself. I can knock on my rib cage when it’s time to go to bed. I can squeeze my own heart. When I fart, no one else can smell it.
I write poems.
They look like those Salvador Dali paintings I saw in the Philadelphia Museum of Art.”
“Since the day I swallowed myself, I haven’t been in any trouble. I quit smoking. I don’t kiss any more boys. I got away from my skanky friends and I don’t log onto the Internet. It’s probably the best thing I ever did for myself apart from that time I ran from Irenic Brown last summer. But that’s another story, and girls who swallow themselves can’t tell stories. But I ran fast. I ran so, so fast.”
China continues: “Gustav told me in physics class yesterday that he’s not afraid to die. I thought about it all day. I think he’s bullshitting.
Gustav once wore snowshoes for a week because he learned about string theory and didn’t trust the molecular makeup of matter, and he says he’s not afraid to die? How can he think he’s fooling anyone? Everyone is afraid to die.”
And now from Stanzi: “Truth is, my name isn’t Stanzi. I only call myself Stanzi after watching the movie Amadeus too many times with Gustav. Truth is, my name doesn’t really matter. I’m a character in a movie. In your book. In your mind. I play tug-of-war. I am a coward and a soldier. I am a pacifist and a warmonger. I am behind the bush with the man who sells letters, and I tell him secrets about who sends bomb threats to the our school every day….Constanze was a braver woman that I am….I dare you to go back to 1779 and be seventeen years old. You would be searching for light switches and toilets. You’d kill for a thermostat. A refrigerator. A telephone. You would pray for a 50% survival rate for your babies, and when you were blessed with one who lived through infancy, I bet you would do more than standardize it with tests or plop it in front of the TV.”
Do you get it? Well, all of the above is only in the first 34 pages of the book so you have pages and pages to go before you sleep.