"People lived in bodies that were largely unknowable. Some things you could never learn about yourself -- some things nobody could learn about you until after you died."
Jude Winston, of Brit Bennett's The Vanishing Half, comes to this conclusion as she considers how much she enjoys the cadaver work in medical school, what she calls, "the mystery of dissections as well as the challenge." But those largely unknowable bodies? They're not just student reflections; they are the very heart of this book.
Every critic on the planet has noted the connection between Bennett's novel, rooted in the soil of one light-skinned twin sister's decision to abandon her past and pass as white, and Nella Larsen's groundbreaking Passing. And to every critic I can find, this book is about race. And it is. But it is also more than that.
Desiree and Stella grew up in Mallard, Louisiana, a place that doesn't appear on maps and ultimately disappears altogether. But the people of Mallard, and their intense colorism, were real. Desiree and Stella leave the town as teenagers, and without warning, their lives take very different paths: Desiree to an abusive marriage which causes her to return home with her daughter Jude; and Stella to a job and then a marriage, both accomplished because everyone thought she was white.
Stella's decision to pass is a real and important part of the story. She is Black, and she lives as White, and every day, she lives with that tension. But to reduce this book to a story of a Black woman passing is to put it back in Larsen's time. And it is decidedly more.
There are reviewers who have argued the strength of the novel is in those sisters. They feel the novel is weakened when it widens to include the experiences of Desiree and Stella's daughters. I must respectfully, but full-throatedly, disagree. The book is about those daughters and the continued experience, the ongoing lineage, of the trauma that occurs when your body feels like a betrayal.
This aspect is most evident in Jude's relationship with Reese. Like Stella, Reese abandoned his family and his past to become someone else. But in his case, he was on a journey toward his true self, the one his body did not acknowledge. Stella, in fact, isn't the point. She is an example of what happens when a person feels forced to live a lie. She is what Reese - and every other trans person in the world - is fighting against. To prove my point definitively would require I spoil certain aspects of the book, which I am unwilling to do. But I remain convinced that this book is about much more than just race.
It is about all the ways we can know our bodies intimately and still feel betrayed by them. The ways we hate our bodies or attempt to alter them, the ways we hide them, from ourselves and others. And the freedom and life that comes from letting our bodies be known.
There is an extended section near the end that circles decay, decline, the AIDS crisis, and death. If you view this book as a treatise on race, you will not understand this section. You will dismiss it and argue that the author didn't know how to end it, let it drag out unnecessarily, left us unresolved. I believe that Bennett knows exactly what she's doing, and this section is her tell. When someone dies, it's not their body we miss. Jude understands the pain of loss and its ubiquity:
"That was the thing about death. Only the specifics of it hurt. Death, in a general sense, was background noise. She stood in the silence of it."
In that silence, there is freedom. In death, we can be freed from the body that has equally thrilled and delighted and harmed and betrayed us. In death, we can be remembered for the person we were inside that body. There are, as Jude reminds us, things we can only learn about a body after it is gone. And that, I think, is the point.
I cried at my college graduation. It was supposed to be a pinnacle of academic achievement, a day of celebration, and I was bereft. I was certain of nothing except these words thrumming in my head: I'm not ready. And I wasn't. I wasn't ready to leave behind that place and the safety it had afforded me. I wasn't ready to leave behind my people, the ones who loved me despite myself and showed me what friendship meant. I wasn't ready to leave behind the girl I had become there, and I was so scared she wouldn't come with me.
I've been recalling that part of my story because of this story: David Arnold's The Strange Fascinations of Noah Hypnotik. If it were possible to bottle late adolescence, all the turmoil and uncertainty, all its joy and shimmer and pain and quiet, all of it, this book would be it.
No, this book would be what happened if you took that bottle, shook it wildly, and then released its contents into the air.
No, that's still not it. This book is what happens when you do all that, and the moment the contents of the bottle spray into the air, each fragment hardens into colored glass and kaleidoscopes across the sky. This book is both very real and full of very real magic.
Noah Oakman is looking at senior year square in the eye, and he's not ready. The college coaches are still calling despite the back injury that has kept him out of the pool for weeks. His parents think he should accept an offer if one comes, but he's not sure. The one thing he is sure of is his friendship with twins Val and Alan. Their history is rich, going back years. It is constant and stable and true.
In fact, a lot of things are constant in Noah's life. A huge David Bowie fan, Noah wears the same Bowie t-shirt and pants every day (they're clean; he has multiples). His parents always watch an episode of Friends at night before bed. He keeps his room orderly and his furniture at right angles.
The night before school starts, Val and Alan drag Noah to a party where he gets drunk and meets a kid named Circuit, who is the first to hear what's really on Noah's mind:
I want a new trajectory. Everything -- everyone -- in my life is stagnant. I'm not saying I'm better than anyone. For all I know, everyone else is growing too, just in different ways, but -- it's like my life is this old sweater. And I've outgrown it.
Circuit gets it. Back at his house, Circuit shows Noah the invention his dad was still perfecting when he died, and then,
"Ready?" he asks, and I think, Ready for what, weirdo?
All that comes out is, "Okay."
Before Noah understands what's happening, Circuit has hypnotized him. When Noah wakes up, everything is different. Not a lot. Just weird stuff. Like how the family dog who would regularly walk into walls is now spry and alert. Or the new scar on his mom's face. Or how Val's photography -- which was always about movies -- is now all about music?
But some things haven't changed, most notably his Strange Fascinations. From a dropped photograph to an old man who walks every day, these things have obsessed Noah, and because they seem to be the only constants in this new version of his world, he decides to find out why.
What follows is equal parts beautiful and complicated, painful and full of joy. Just like adolescence, in fact. To go into more detail would spoil the half-mystery, half-discovery that is this book. Rest assured that the dialogue will be beyond clever, and there will be insights peppered throughout, like this from Noah's mom, describing how parents want to help their kid through the puzzle of growing up, but can't:
You think you have so much time to work on the map, to make it just right. And then one day you wake up to find your perfect, lovely child is already there, right in the thick of the maze. You were so diligent, kept watch every night, and you don't know when or how it happened, but it did. Your kid is in the maze without a map, and there's nothing you can do but watch.
Or when Noah's dad asks, "You ready?" and Noah wonders
if such a thing as being ready is even possible given the discrepancy between the world we've been promised and the broken instrument we've received.
The truth is none of us is ever ready. But we are hopeful. And that's sort of the same thing. In an interview, Arnold explained that the process of writing this book was really personal, but goes on to say,
Now that it's written, I guess I want the book to be for anyone who has ever been offered some dim version of the world and thought, "Surely it's brighter than that."
If that's you, read this book. And like Noah, you might just come out the other side realizing
that this world is both very real and full of very real magic.
The Strange Fascinations of Noah Hypnotik is full of quantum physics and philosophy, friendship and failure, loneliness and creativity and love, and it is the kind of book you want to press into the hands of every clever teenager, each of them so smart and covered over with questions, each of them ready and not ready all at the same time. Tell them, just read this, trust me, it's exactly what you want.