Man, it’s been a crazy couple of weeks. So many of you read and shared my piece on Go Set a Watchman – I appreciate it and am very humbled that my blog is starting to make the rounds. I just got word that I’ll be receiving an ARC soon that I’m completely amped about (so much so that I’ve been going around using words like “amped” and “stoked”), so I’m looking forward to that as well. (And my mom would want me to mention that I got recognized as a valuable colleague at work that came with a bonus, and, um, a polo shirt – “all the good things!”)
The good things have been awesome because the bad things have been wild. Eight years ago I found a puppy this big in the woods, and brought her home as our family dog. She grew into that giant bone hoarder! We just found out she has cancer and numbered days. I also had a procedure called an intercostal nerve block. This type of block is actually in/beneath your rib – done twice diagnostically prior to going in with a super hot needle (the big guns). The hope is it works, though the things that could go wrong are terrifying. My first diagnostic procedure was a success – no pain for 24 hours. CRAZY. I have not had a day without pain in so long! But the recovery, whew, buddy – 3 days of pain so bad that I thought I was going to be sick, not even able to read. The next diagnostic procedure is coming up this Friday.
So I’m glad I’ve got this balance of good with the bad happening. More and more as I get older it feels like things happen for a reason, that the universe unfolds as it should or some shit. Really, though. I never felt it when I was younger and I’m not sure what that is. Anyways, to add to my list of wonderful things happening that off-set the stressful, I have officially found a favorite author. I’ve never had a favorite author before which people have always found strange, given the amount of reading that I do. And now I know I will be able to answer the question with certainty.
The first thing I read by Matthew Quick was Silver Linings Playbook, and I really only read it because I knew it was a movie coming out with Jennifer Lawrence. Now, if you only saw the movie, you need to reevaluate and go back to that book. Matthew Quick did an amazing job telling a contemporary and modern love story, but even more importantly, he jumped into the psyche of stigmatized illness. He explored with beautiful penmanship the difficulty of living in the margins of society. The entire book was written as a stream of consciousness, which unfortunately didn’t translate well to movie form. What should be silent internal dialogue became spoken in the film, and as a result the character’s diagnosis didn’t quite remain the same. The only constant from book to film is Jennifer Lawrence’s character (and fuck did she deserve that Oscar). Criticisms of the movie were often that the portrayal of mental illness wasn’t realistic, and I just wanted to say to everyone, “Yeah, but if you’d read the book and saw that it was a good portrayal and understood why they had to translate that portrayal for the movie in a different way….” etc. etc. etc. You get my point. The movie is good, but the book is fantastic.
I loved it so much that when Forgive Me, Leonard Peacock came out Goodreads notified me (Goodreads is so nice about notifying me). This was in 2013. Here we are in 2015 and I finally got low enough in my TBR pile to check it out from the library. And, as per usual in this blog, I felt like a huge idiot for not reading it sooner. Because the man is now my favorite author.
Forgive Me, Leonard Peacock is about a teenager who is prepping for his 18th birthday, and no one has remembered. He plans to spend the day providing gifts to people who have had an impact on his life, just before he kills another boy and himself. It’s not the happiest of plots, when it is all laid out like that, but don’t let it scare you off. At its core the story is really about uncovering why this is Leonard’s plan for his 18th birthday, what has affected his life, and how to re-open his heart.
Matthew Quick really showed his range with this book. Silver Linings Playbook is a beautifully written in-depth novel. Forgive Me, Leonard Peacock is without a doubt a young adult story. It’s paragraphs are brief and it reads quickly, and yet both books are equally done well. For me it was the equivalent of watching someone go from writing and directing a movie that was a comedic drama for adults to writing and directing a cartoon and hitting it out of the ballpark on both; it just seems like there is so rarely that cross-over. In literature, the general rule is that if you write YA, you are a YA author. Period. And I really liked seeing Quick demonstrate that a writer can explore the spectrum, stay true to his craft and still develop an excellent piece of work.
What’s more, he maintained his ability to write about damaged psyches even when translating it to the mind of an adolescent. It’s tough to be in the mind of a teenager as an adult. I remember being in 8th grade and thinking I wanted to a middle school counselor when I grew up because no one understood what it’s like to be in middle school. Now that I’m an adult, all I can think is that I really don’t understand or relate at all to 8th graders, I would be terrible at that job, and when did that happen? But the way Quick writes makes me remember. He captured it. It seems like magic to me as a (sort of) grown-up. He’s not exploring feeling fictional romance as you fight to death in an arena (not that this can’t be well done; I love the Hunger Games) – this book is a very simple realistic look at the life of one teenage boy, inside his head. And Quick managed to make him feel like a real person.
I continued to admire the way Quick addressed mental illness. It isn’t outlandish. His plots are driven by the need to uncover the source of the character’s mental illness and, in the process, the readers inevitably join the movement of removing stigma attached to it. Forgive Me, Leonard Peacock is about slowly understanding pieces of the puzzle of the protagonist’s mind, until finally you see the completed image. I’ve never seen a writer who not only understood mental illness in all of its forms so completely, but also tricked the reader into understanding it by withholding details of it up until the end. It’s like the suspense of getting to the bottom of what caused mental illness in this child is also uncovering your own understanding of the problem itself. By writing it in this way, providing a little bit of the story first and then the tools to understand the underlying cause of Peacock’s mental illness, the reader comes away with a heartfelt almost protective feeling of Quick’s protagonist. And thus, by extension, perhaps a more loving view of those children battling mental illness amongst us in real life. I’m not really sure if writing this story of discovery and thus inherently affecting emotion toward mental illness as a whole is intentional on Quick’s part, but given the depth and excellence of his writing, I would guess that it is.
Quick also did something in this book I’ve never seen before. He wrote about half of it in the footnotes. I’m not talking about something like Good Omens, where a decent portion of side notes and hilarity are found there. I’m saying that there is the central basic plot in the main portion of the pages, and the rest of the story is actually told and developed through footnotes. It’s a unique way to write any novel, YA or otherwise, and I’m surprised with how well it worked. It allowed him to break up what were, essentially, two separate stories being told – what was happening this day of Leonard Peacock’s 18th birthday, and why it was happening (the why it was happening being the bulk in the footnotes). Breaking the book up with footnotes allowed the telling of two different stories to feel connected in some way, whereas if it had all been in one flowing narrative it might have felt fractured.
The footnotes accomplished something else as well. The story felt really heavy at times, as you can tell by me having to explain to you that the plot isn’t really as gruesome as the outline would suggest. By breaking up the darkness with jumping between footnotes, Quick gave the reader a bit of a break. He allowed the reader to steer away from being totally engulfed by the intense portions of the story, and even made the occasional humorous comment seem welcome rather than out of place. I’m not sure if the footnotes were written as a solution to the heaviness of this YA plot, or if the footnotes were the idea and the rest written around them, but either way – it worked. And it was a big risk, because how many books do you see written that way? It could easily have been a disaster. Matthew Quick takes risks in his writing, straying from the conventional, and it works.
There are two primary themes in the book that I found deeply human and intriguing. The first is the absolute desire to make a connection with others around us, and how difficult it is to actually do that. Throughout Peacock’s journey, you find him desperately desiring connection by wishing people to understand him and simultaneously trying to understand them. For example, he follows strangers on the train that he thinks are sad in an effort to understand where their sadness comes from and decide whether it is worth growing up – growing up to a life of commuting and hating your job and being lonely. Where is that feeling of human connection? In an interaction at school that day, he thinks, “I would have talked with him openly and honestly – no double talk at all – if he would have just sat down, taken a few minutes to be human.” This is the heart of the primary story line – the search for connection that makes Peacock seem like both a normal teenager and too intelligent for his own good.
The other primary theme is the idea of memory and how it is connected to the development of the self. The repression of memory, you find out in the story, is what lies beneath Peacock’s mental illness and what brings about his birthday of horror (though I won’t disclose to you what those memories are). But Quick also points out that this idea of loss of memory and confusion is not specific to the mentally ill, but all around us. Thinking about memory and our birthdays, Peacock thinks, “And I wonder at what age it’s appropriate to stop keeping track of everyone’s birthday. When do we stop needing the people around us to acknowledge the fact that we are aging and changing and getting closer to our deaths? No one tells you this. It’s like everyone remembers your birthday every single year and then suddenly you can’t remember the last time someone sang the birthday song to you, nor can you say when it stopped. You should be able to remember, right?” Quick is essentially raising questions of how our memory development affects who we become. The youth that shaped us – are we really aware of the majority of it? How many memories do you have? There aren’t definitive answers to these questions, but I appreciate that Quick raises them. In reality, any bubbling up of some lost specific memory could potentially put you on the edge of relating to poor Leonard Peacock. Quick connects the universal ideas of memory to the individual protagonist, and suddenly, without realizing it, you are intertwined in his story.
For all of these reasons, after reading just two books (two flawless books), I have decided this person has to be my favorite author. When my mother was here visiting earlier this month she offered to buy me some books and I asked for Love May Fail. I will soon be reading and reviewing that here. A bit behind, given that millions have already read Forgive Me, Leonard Peacock and I’m only now getting around to it. But man I’m glad I read it. Better late than never.
And I think it goes without saying, but I’ll say it anyways: yes, I recommend you give this one a read.