An Absolutely Remarkable Thing
by Hank Green
“The power that each of us has over complete strangers to make them feel terrible and frightened and weak is amazing.”
Published Sept. 25, 2018 by Dutton
Genre: science fiction
Date finished: Oct. 28, 2018
The Carls just appeared. Coming home from work at three a.m., twenty-three-year-old April May stumbles across a giant sculpture. Delighted by its appearance and craftsmanship–like a ten-foot-tall Transformer wearing a suit of samurai armor–April and her friend Andy make a video with it, which Andy uploads to YouTube. The next day April wakes up to a viral video and a new life. News quickly spreads that there are Carls in dozens of cities around the world–everywhere from Beijing to Buenos Aires–and April, as their first documentarian, finds herself at the center of an intense international media spotlight.
Now April has to deal with the pressure on her relationships, her identity, and her safety that this new position brings, all while being on the front lines of the quest to find out not just what the Carls are, but what they want from us.
My thoughts (spoiler free)
If you’re going to read this book, there are a few things you need to understand first:
- This is NOT young adult.
- Hank Green is not John Green. They’re brothers, but that does not mean they’re writing the same types of books.
- If you go into this expecting a YA contemporary similar to John Green, you’re not going to find it.
Okay, NOW you’re allowed to read this book.
An Absolutely Remarkable Thing is unlike any book I’ve ever read. Not only did it discuss topics that I don’t usually see in books and that feel so important in today’s world, but it did so using a completely unique premise, an engaging storyline, and a complex protagonist.
Our main character is twenty-three year old April May, who stumbles upon a ten-foot-tall statue in New York City at 3 AM. After making a video with her best friend Andy, wherein she names the statue Carl, April discovers that identical statues have appeared simultaneously all over the world without explanation, and thanks to her now-viral video, she is at the center of the mystery of where the Carls came from.
April is not a particularly likable character, but she is unquestionably one of the most interesting characters I’ve read in a while. (This may have something to do with the fact that I adore unlikeable characters.) Even as she acting in ways that hurt her loved ones or put her in dangerous situations, she is aware of how horrible she’s being, yet unable to stop herself. That feels so true to life to me. People are flawed, but just because they recognize a flaw about themselves doesn’t mean they are in a position or willing to fix it. April is in a high-stress situation where she would rather focus on the Carl mystery than her personal problems, causing her to act irrationally.
“Knowing something is a bad idea does not always decrease the odds that you will do it. If I had examined my motivations on this one, I probably wouldn’t have liked what I found, so I didn’t.”
Adding to that, the narration is clearly from somewhere in the future, where she knows that she has messed up somewhere along the line. Looking back, she can point to the exact moments where she failed or made the wrong decision, but she can’t do anything to stop them. It’s like watching a train wreck in slow motion, or watching Icarus fly closer to the sun and being helpless to prevent his fall. This narrative distance is such a cool way of telling the story because the reader also knows that something is going to go wrong, yet all we can do is wait for it to happen.
In addition, April has such a distinctive and entertaining voice, both funny and frustrating in equal measure. She is snarky and emotionally closed off, but she is also fascinated and enthusiastic about the mystery. For me, the writing of April’s voice was a definite strong point of the book.
I read a lot of reviews while I was trying to formulate my thoughts on this book, and a surprising number of them accused April of being a Manic Pixie Dream Girl™. Besides my immediate aversion to that term and the ways it is used to devalue female characters unfairly, I don’t understand how this could be applied to April. To my understanding, the MPDG is supposed to be, well, a dream girl, and the way I read April was anything but. April is a mess, and she acknowledges this many times in the book. She even laughs at herself for thinking she was “special” and “quirky” for not liking Twitter and thinking she was above it all, so I’m a little lost how anyone could read her character this way. In other news, I shouldn’t be allowed to read negative reviews of books I love because they make me irrationally angry.
Truly, this was such an intelligent book. Obviously Hank Green is a smart guy, considering all his various projects, but it shone through in this book. Not only in the mystery elements, which were so cleverly put together, but the ideas the book explored as well. A main theme was fame: the reality of being thrust into the spotlight, how people look to you to be a leader even if you’re unqualified, how you become more of a symbol than a human being. In addition, the book explored ideas about how extremism and polarization happens and the horrifying destructive potential of humanity as well as our capacity for creating beauty and wonder. I felt like I was getting smarter with every page I read.
Although this is technically a sci-fi novel, those aspects of it were pretty soft, placing it somewhere between sci-fi and contemporary. While the Carls and the mystery surrounding them were obviously a main focus of the book, it was more interested in April’s journey and experiences alongside them than anything else. This is undeniably a First Contact story, though it focuses more on the humans than the aliens.
During the few days that I was reading this book, I didn’t want to put it down. When I was nearing the end, I was glued to every word, simultaneously screaming at the page and tearing up. If you’ve heard anything about this book, you might have heard that it has quite the ending. I didn’t initially know that it was going to be a series, so you can imagine my relief when I went to Goodreads after finishing it and saw that “Untitled” Book 2 there! I really really really really really need to know what happens next!
This is a book that I went into with very little knowledge of what to expect, picking it up mostly because I admire Hank Green as a person and had seen a fair bit of hype around this release, and I ended up being blown away. From the quality of writing to the thought-provoking ideas to the complex characters, this book surprised me in every possible way. I highly recommend you pick it up because it, itself, is an absolutely remarkable thing.
“Even on this most terrible days, even when the worst of us are all we can think of, I am proud to be a human.”