Thursday, August 17, 2017

Book 90: Neon Green

"It was his birthday after all, and this was who he was- a committed environmentalist. The very idea filled him with energy. His life was a fight. He was a fighter, no apologies and no breaks for inconvenience. Of course he knew that mopping up the spill would probably do nothing, that it was an infinitesimal smidgen in the grand scheme of things, but his fight was no less important when it was symbolic. Symbols added up to something." 

Dates read: September 17-19, 2016

Rating: 5/10

What is history? Specifically, what is historical fiction? I've been trying to wrestle my head around it for a while. If a book was written as contemporary literature 100 years ago, is it now historical fiction? On a related note, I think we'd all agree that a book set 50 years ago is historical fiction...but what about 40? 30? 20? 10? Or is it based on set events? Is a pre-9/11 book set in America historical fiction, since there was a significant cultural shift that occurred after that point? Is it within a lifetime? Whose? As an almost-32-year-old, I don't like to think about my own lifetime as encompassing history, but to a 14 year-old, a childhood before smart phones may well be.

Set two decades ago, before widespread home computing/internet access and cell phones, Margaret Wappler's Neon Green seems like it can be considered historical fiction relatively safely. Well, maybe, because there's an important difference: in Wappler's world, Earth has been visited by alien life from Jupiter since the early period of the Reagan administration. While the details are kept carefully shrouded (a time before Wikileaks!), it's become normalized enough that you can send in an application to be visited by an alien ship. No lifeforms will emerge, but it looks really cool on your lawn for several months. You have to be at least 16 to apply, which means that Gabe Allen is just old enough to secure a ship for his family's yard. The problem is that his parents, especially his father, are definitely not on board with it.

Parents Ernest and Cynthia Allen are both staunch environmentalists: Cynthia has channeled her passion into an environmental law-focused career, while Ernest does freelance environmental consulting. They're the early-90s-crunchy-granola kind of people that do most of their shopping at the food co-op and brought their own bags long before it was trendy. They live a cozy little life, mostly pretty happy, in a cozy little neighborhood outside Chicago until two things happen in fairly close succession: the spaceship arrives, and Cynthia's advanced brain cancer is discovered. The confluence of these events sends Ernest over the deep edge.

Despite the aliens, this isn't really a science fiction story. It's a story about a family in particular, about a man in crisis, because Ernest is really at the heart of the narrative. The social changes around families and gender roles that took place throughout the 60s, 70s, and 80s eroded a lot of markers of traditional masculinity, and not even hippy-dippy types like Ernest are immune from the angst that can bring. It's easy to see that his reaction to the spaceship is rooted mostly in his inability to control what he thinks of as his home turf, and the ways in which he tries to cope with his wife's health situation only further demonstrate that he's spinning out. Both son Gabe and daughter Alison deal with their grief about their mother's grim prognosis in their own different ways, and before long the once mostly happy family is unrecognizable from what it used to be.

It's well-written enough, but for me, there wasn't enough "there" there. It's the kind of character-driven family drama that I tend to enjoy, but crucial to these kinds of books is a connection built to the characters. The story suffers for its focus on Ernest, whose masculinity-based identity crisis isn't particularly compelling. I thought Alison's story was much more interesting but incredibly underdeveloped, and Gabe and Cynthia herself could have also done with more attention paid to them. This didn't "feel" like a book written by a woman, to me: thinking that a middle-aged guy's largely self-inflicted sufferings are worth a preponderance of the reader's time and energy doesn't usually tend to be a mistake female writers make. I enjoyed the 90s throwback nostalgia, but otherwise found this pretty skippable.

Tell me, blog you think we'll make contact with aliens within your lifetime?

One year ago, I was reading: Wild Bill Donovan

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