BOOK REVIEW: Spontaneous by Aaron Starmer
Reviewed by Steph O’Connell
Here’s what happens when a guy blows up during your group therapy session that’s supposed to make you feel better about people blowing up. The group therapy session is officially cancelled. You do not feel better.
Okay, right off the bat, before we get into all the awesome things about this story, let me make one thing perfectly clear.
Some people are bound to not like this main character.
She’s opinionated, and lazy, and morbid. She does drugs, falls in love too quickly, makes snap-judgements, and making jokes is her biggest coping mechanism.
She’s the kind of guy who laughs at a funeral* if you will.
But, you know what? I went through a lot of these same feelings when I was a teenager… minus the spontaneous combustion element, of course. So, while some people might point out things Mara does that don’t seem realistic… well, I would like to tell these people that she might very well be my teenage spirit animal. Only, well, way more confident in herself than I ever was. But that’s on me.
And sometimes, when people around you start blowing up without warning, what you really need is a little humour to help save you from those deep, wallowing pits of despair.
“I like Mara’s jokes,” Brian Chen responded. “They help me remember it’s okay to smile. I don’t know if I’d still be coming to these things if it wasn’t for Mara.”
“Thank you, Bri,” I said, and at that point I began to realize that we were a bit of a cliché. Stories about troubled teenagers often feature support groups where smart-ass comments fly and feelings get hurt, where friends and enemies are forged over one-liners and tears. But here’s the thing. Even if we were a bit of a cliché, we were only a cliché for a bit. Because almost immediately after announcing his dedication to my humor, Brian Chen blew up.
Enter Mara, the only person who could tell this story without it getting too depressing, while still putting into words so very well how the grief and shock of this sort of situation affects the “survivors”.
You can’t feel much of anything in a moment like that. You certainly can’t analyze the situation. At least not while it’s happening. Later, the image will play over and over in your head, like some demon GIF, like some creeper who slips into your bed every single night, taps you on the shoulder, and says, “Remember me, the worst fucking moment of your life up to this point?” Later, you’ll feel and do a lot of things, but when it’s actually happening, all you can feel is confusion and all you do is react.
I sat there drinking and feeling sorry for myself. Then I sat there drinking and feeling angry at myself. Then I sat there drinking and feeling nothing, watching the rain like every pitiful person who ever thought that rain can stand in for emotions when, really, it’s only weather. Stupid fucking weather.
(Oh, yes, and she swears. A lot.)
(*No, she doesn’t actually laugh at a funeral, but she definitely laughs at some funeral-adjacent events, and she makes jokes of the “too soon” variety in her people-who-were-in-the-same-room-as-the-girl-who-spontaneously-combusted support group.)
In Covington, New Jersey, not long after the new school year has started, one of the seniors blows up.
When Katelyn Ogden blew up in third period pre-calc, the janitor probably figured he’d only have to scrub guts off one whiteboard this year. Makes sense. In the past, kids didn’t randomly explode. Not in pre-calc, not at prom, not even in chem lab, where explosions aren’t exactly unheard of. Not one kid. Not one explosion. Ah, the good old days.
Everyone is shocked, and because she’s from a Turkish background (see: non-white) it can’t be “just one of those things.” It has to be a “terrorist thing.”
Mr. Mellick once told Katelyn that she “would make an excellent anchorwoman,” which was a coded way of saying that she spoke well and, though it wasn’t clear if she was part black or part Asian or part Hispanic, she was pretty in a nonthreatening, vaguely ethnic way.
When a second non-white student from the same class blows up, people are even more insistent that it’s some kind of attack. Never mind that no one was hurt but the ones who blew up and no traces were found of anything explosive or foreign in the… remains.
When the next victim is a white boy who turns out to be gay, the theories change again.
Never mind that even if Katelyn was gay and even if Brian was gay – and part of me kinda hoped that he was after that bus kiss snub – there’s nothing about being gay that makes a person more combustible. Most sane and reasonable people realize this.
Alas, the world is neither sane nor reasonable, especially when ad-click revenue comes into play. Only the most callous and cynical “journalists” were trotting out link-bait like A NEW GAY PLAGUE? But that didn’t mean others weren’t implying the same thing.
As more explosions happen, people grasping for answers suggest everything from karma, to religious punishment, to some kind of government plot. The one thing that doesn’t change, though, is that kids in the senior year of this one school continue to blow up. There one second, nothing but red mist and bits of gore the next.
The classroom quaked and my face was suddenly warm and wet. It’s a disgusting way to say it, but it’s the simplest way to say it: Katelyn was a balloon full of fleshy bits. And she popped.
There is so much to this book to love, but I’m not fool enough to think that everyone will adore it. You need a certain kind of humour to appreciate the laughs among the death, but if you do have the right sense of humour you will no doubt find yourself laughing in places where you tell yourself you ought not be laughing.
There is a romance in this book, of the sort that isn’t there one page, and is rather serious the next. But I think that goes with the territory.
When people around you start blowing up, and you don’t know if you’re going to be next, you’re bound to latch onto a little bit of intimacy. Heck, even teenagers going through the normal hormonal changes without the threat of imminent death can find themselves in relationships that seem to have come from nowhere and that they believe they can’t live without. But what makes it more realistic for this reader is the way these feelings play out throughout the story.
There is friendship in this story, and love, and loss, and a whole lot of uncertainty. It’s a whirlwind of a ride, and I feel like I’ve been waiting for something original and different like this all year.
From a reader’s point of view, the end of the story was rather uncertain and open-ended, and we are never given closure as to what it was that caused this, or even if it’s going to continue. But from the point of view where this is a metaphor for normal life, especially for teenagers facing the end of the biggest part of their lives so far, facing so much uncertainty for their future, this felt more realistic than any forced ending the author might have written.
Certain things were left up to the reader’s imagination, possibly because one way of handling the situation would have been too cheesy, and the other would have been too depressing and final. While this might not sit well for some readers, life isn’t so neatly wrapped up as to give us all the answers, and sometimes we have to go on living without knowing how everything worked out.
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