Noggin by John Corey Whaley (review copy) - Listen: Travis Coates was alive once and then he wasn’t. Now he’s alive again. Simple as that.
The in between part is still a little fuzzy, but Travis can tell you that, at some point or another, his head got chopped off and shoved into a freezer. Five years later, it was reattached to some other guy’s body, and well, here he is.
Despite all logic, he’s still sixteen and everything and everyone around him has changed. That includes his parents, his best friend, and his girlfriend. Or maybe she’s not his girlfriend anymore? That’s a bit fuzzy too. If the new Travis and the old Travis are ever going to find a way to exist together, it looks like there's going to be a few more scars.
Oh well, you only live twice. From the blurb.
With it's striking cover and intriguing and unique premise, Noggin by John Corey Whaley was not a book I could pass up. A full cranial transplant? How can that not spike your interest? I was surprised to find that Noggin was a lot more serious and thought-provoking than I was expecting, and wonderful for it.
Travis Coates contracted terminal leukemia, and fully expected to die. That was until he was approached by Dr. Saranson, who informed experimental procedures were being undertaken, and there was a possibility he could save Travis' life. All it would mean is removing and cryogenically freezing Travis' head, and attaching to a healthy donor body. Travis decides to take the chance, even though he doesn't really believe it will work. However, it does. Travis has a nap, and wakes up five years later. But his new life is not what he expected. Everyone is older, and everyone has changed. How is Travis supposed to find his place in this world that has moved on and left him behind?
Because of how absurd and impossible the premise of this book sounds, and the title of Noggin, I expected this to be a comedy. It's not. There are quite a few funny bits, but Noggin is a much more serious book than I was prepared for. This was such a good thing, because it surprised me how much depth there was to this book, and how it really go me thinking. Travis' new life is far from easy. He wasn't expecting the procedure to work, but if he did, he was expecting to wake up 100 years into the future. Not five, where so much is familiar, and yet other things so different. To him, it literally feels like he's only had a short nap, but now his best friend, Kyle, and his girlfriend, Cate, are 21 and in college, his bedroom is completely bare as his parents threw his stuff out, and there's something strange going on with his Dad.
He find it hard to accept that some things have changed so much. Cate, his girlfriend... is no longer his girlfriend. She mourned for him, then she moved on. And now she's engaged to someone else. But to Travis, she was his girlfriend only a few hours ago - a few weeks ago, as the story goes on. This affects him the most, really; the girl he loves is no longer by his side where she should be. And he doesn't know how to deal with that except by trying to get her back. It is hard for him to accept five years have gone by, but what isn't sinking in for him is that those five years did go by for everyone else. For all intents and purposes, to everyone who cares about him, Travis has been dead and gone for five years, and suddenly he's back. And it's difficult for everyone to deal with. They had to spend five years without him. They had to grow up without him. They had to move on, without him. It hurt them, but it happened, and they can't undo the past five years and all the changes they've been through just because he's back now. They love that he's here, but it's still so difficult to get their head around. But of course Travis is young, and can't help focusing on his own problems.
This book was so thought-provoking. Really. I had a conversation about the whole idea of this book with my own best friend, about what life would like - what we would be like - if this happened to me. How much would be different. How I would feel to be stuck here while everyone else moved forward and left me behind. It actually really upset me, the though of what I would miss out on, how this gap might affect my relationships. Really upset me. So in that sense, I really sympathised with Travis, despite the fact he's a real idiot at times. But I also really understood where everyone else was coming from. What if it was the other way round, and my best friend "died", only to come back five years later, and I had to spend the next five years without him. How much would I change? Would he still really know me then? Could our friendship survive such distance, such a shake up? This book is incredible at getting you to think about what something like this could really mean. It's unbelievably moving.
Saying all this, from about half way/two thirds of the way in, things got a little samey. There was no real change in the plot; time went on, Travis was still having trouble accepting, the people around him were still learning to deal with his return. Travis carried on with his obsession of trying to win back Cate, and even got a little ridiculous with it at some points (though, to be fair, he does love her, and I can't really blame him for trying all he can think of). It kind of plateaued here until the end. The only real change is finding out what was going on with his Dad, but I had worked that out really early on, so that was no real surprise. In any other book, this would have been a major problem for me, this plateauing, but I was so fascinated by the emotions and confusion, that I finished Noggin thinking this part was mildly frustrating rather than a huge let down. I still really enjoyed the book on the whole, still something I would really recommend.
There is a lgbtq subplot that fits in really well with the story. Of what can change - or not - for someone in five years. What it would mean to have a secret literally taken to the grave, and how that would affect you as you go forward. What it would then mean when that person is no longer dead. Coming back and finding secrets are no longer secrets, but something altogether different. It's not a major part of the story, but it's a major part of the relationship between Travis and one other person in this book. I found it really interesting, and not just the lgbtq aspect of it, but the secret aspect, the idea of only one person knowing your secret, and dying with it. No-one knows again, yet you have actually shared that secret. What now? I think that particular person's story would be really interesting as a short story or something. The different ways that would go, and how that's figured out internally.
Noggin is a brilliant story, and so thought-provoking. It's about letting go of the past, and moving on with the future - but how it's not always that easy, on either side, when the past comes back. A really powerful story, a fascinating idea, and one that has me interested to read more by Whaley, to see what else he can get me to think about.
Thank you to Simon and Schuster for the review copy.
Published: 31st July 2014
Publisher: Simon and Schuster
John Corey Whaley's Website