My Review of Hank Green’s “An Absolutely Remarkable Thing”
Cover for "An Absolutely Remarkable Thing"
An Absolutely Remarkable Thing was published on September 25, 2018, the result of a five-year effort from debut novelist, Hank Green. I picked up this book because I’m a fan of Green’s vlogbrothers channel on YouTube. I’ve also read his brother, John’s, books and loved his last two. There's nothing wrong with that. Any advantage you can use to get exposure to your work is fair game in my book. However, I’m not out to compare his writing to his already successful brother’s. It’s appropriate, though, that Green’s fame is largely responsible for the book debuting at No. 1 on the New York Times Best Sellers list, since the book itself deals with the theme of how fame inspires success. While this was an advantage for the first time author, it takes actual writing talent to achieve true success in the writing world. While not a perfect story, An Absolutely Remarkable Thing proved to me that Green has that talent for clear, creative storytelling that can capture a reader’s interest, entertain, and educate, just as he does on YouTube.
“You can only do so much pretending before you become the thing you’re pretending to be.”— Hank Green
April May, a 23-year-old graphic design student, becomes famous overnight after vlogging and posting a video about a mysterious statue that has appeared in New York City. The statue, which she names Carl, is a 10-foot-tall transformer, one of 64 that appear in various cities that night. They also start leaving cryptic puzzles in places such as Wikipedia, and later, in the form of a dream that most of the population begins to have. April’s fame grows as she gives interviews, makes book deals, and continues posting YouTube videos with her best friend, Andy, assistant Robin, a UC Berkeley graduate student named Miranda, and roommate/girlfriend, Maya, in order to try to figure out the origin and purpose of the Carls. As her fame grows, so does the mystery, tearing her between the people most important to her and the millions of followers who anticipate her next move.
“I don’t know why I’ve never felt like a totally worthwhile person. I just haven’t. It’s what drives me. It’s who I am.”— Hank Green
Hank Green pours a lot of his interests into this plot, from his love of music and science to the pressures of dealing with fame in this decade. Green’s famous voice comes through in how he chooses to tell his story, including history lessons, unique, yet identifiable, metaphors, and candid reflections on how both he and April make their living. Did you ever want to know how much a viral YouTube video is worth to the poster? It’s in there. Want to know how studio news interviews work? You’ll get the details.
At the same time, there is a very fictional story at play here. This is not a play-by-play of Green’s rise to fame. April May is introduced as her own flawed person. She’s also very self-aware of her vices. They come up frequently in the retelling of her story, from regret towards certain actions that she recants to the confession of her hunger for fame, even when she pretends not to care about it. Fame today doesn’t come from talent or being “discovered.” Famous people just need to post a video of themselves being themselves, and the public decides if they want to see more of them, either to love or hate them. In April’s case, she seems to be at the right place at the right time and makes an effort to continue her exposure in various forms of media.
There is also the downside to fame: the haters. April has a rather thick skin which allows her to battle the numerous negative comments that the public relays in the comments section of all online articles and social media posts while pursuing her public investigation of the Carls. April learns, though, that popularity means drawing in those who both love and hate her. The fortune that she amasses in the process mirrors her worth in views rather than individual admirers.
There is also the sci-fi element to the story which competes with April’s personal story. Without giving too much away, the presence of the Carls raise the standard paranormal questions. Some believe them to be alien beings who have come to merely observe humans. Others believe they are out to obliterate them. Neither theory has any credibility.. The clues that the Carls hide are mini-science lessons, from where to find certain earthly elements that the Carls request to using computer language to unlock pass codes. These transformers have the ability to take both natural and manmade items from Earth and twist them into means of communication. There’s an Arrival feel to the story which ultimately leaves the reader, along with the world contained inside this book, with the ultimate question: But why are they here?
“Once life gets a certain amount of weird, more weird just doesn’t really matter.”— Hank Green
The tone of this story never veers too dark, despite the idea that these robots could be out to destroy humanity. The characters tend to keep things light and maintain their unique voices in this quirky world in which April lives before and during these events. There are no real character arcs as much as realizations of certain actions. They learn from their mistakes but continue to make new ones, as people do in real life. An eclectic mix of pop culture references are dropped to both explain mundane details and contribute to the mystery elements of the plot.
Sci-fi can become too confusing when dealing with abstract concepts, but the narrative stays clear, even through the more intense scientific explanations without talking down to the most likely ignorant reader, a feat that I always find impressive. Still, this doesn’t feel like the entire story, just one piece of it. Don’t expect to have all questions answered by the end of the book, even some of the big ones.
The story also has to blend several genres together: mystery, action, thriller, science fiction, contemporary fiction, even LGBTQ fiction. Despite being written by a straight man, I heard a woman’s voice narrating the book as I was reading it, and he definitely did his research to make sure that she came across as an authentic bi woman without seeming like a “type.” We all want to be considered individuals, despite our orientation, and April May is well rounded in that respect, not an easy ball to juggle when there are already so many in the air.
“She pitched it as a wonderful moment to be alive, assuring us that the government was hard at work uncovering the mysteries of the Carls, and all of humanity would have to work together to solve the mysteries of the Dream. It was good. It was sudden for almost everyone, but not for me. It was this slow gradual feeling, like your dog dying a year after being diagnosed with cancer. I had a little bit come to terms with it. But still, then your dog dies, and your dig will never not be dead.”— Hank Green
I think this book is very strong for a first novel. Green knows how to tell a story from years of telling stories in his videos. He also has a knack for language, but in creating a flawed character, he asks that you quickly dismiss April’s faults as the characters that she hurts most do. Despite living with the guilt of her actions, the people she hurts remain loyal to her. Her punishment comes only from continuing to pursue this life that grows larger and larger as she delves deeper into the mystery of the Carls and the growth of her fame. She also shrugs off the wealth that she accumulates and the comfort and freedom it gives her to acquire more and give her the time to study the Carls. However, she is usually the one doing the least amount of work. One of her main tasks is to sleep and explore the world that she and millions of others dream every night while others are editing her videos, creating websites for others exploring the dream to share tips and completed pieces of the puzzle, and managing the legalities of her self-branding.
It’s hard to believe that any of these shaky, real-life situations are not taken away from her as fast as they are given to her. She trusts Andy’s dad to draft the legal paperwork allowing a 50/50 split of all YouTube proceeds between she and his son. She puts the running of her company into the hands of a UC Berkley grad student who she barely knows. She lies to police and the president without any repercussions. The first half of the book sets up all of these potential disasters only to have all of them work out in her favor so that the main conflict can be her only conflict: solving the mystery of the Carls and battling the political pundit who contradicts her viewpoints and leads a small team of people who set out to get in her way.
It’s also a very busy story, bouncing from one event to the next. It could have been longer to flesh out some of the more interesting elements, such as the dream puzzles. Instead, everything feels rushed in order to pack in everything that Green wants to say. So much is left open-ended at the end that I’m left to assume that there will be a sequel. If not, I have a hard time finding the main focus of the story.
With the Carls being such a big part of the book, were they the thing we should have been focused on, arriving in order to teach us about ourselves, or were they just a vehicle for a cautionary tale about YouTube fame? I can honestly say that I enjoyed reading it, but I’m not sure if I understood its intention. It might be made more clear as I read others’ reactions, but reading should ultimately be a very personal experience, and if I need others to explain it to me, there must be a disconnect somewhere.
“What is reality except for the things that people universally experience the dame way? The Dream, in that sense, was very, very real.”— Hank Green
“You know how when you’re trying to get some stuff out of your car and there’s, like, one too many things to bring them all in in one trip? You keep trying to figure out how to hold something slightly differently...you put some stuff down and consolidate some bags and you think you’ve got everything, but then you look down and realize that the cat food or the soda from lunch or the picture frames are still sitting there and you’ve got no way to pick them up."— Hank Green
I went into this book with no expectations. I did little research. All I knew was that Hank Green had written a work of fiction, and I wanted to read it. I'm glad I did. It was interesting and entertaining with compelling cliffhangers, gripping action, and a behind-the-curtain look at today's consumption of social media fame. I had a few problems with it, but I feel like these are problems that could be overcome with future stories, should he decide to write them.
Hank Green's first book could have been a memoir about his own rise to Internet fame. It could have been a science book about one of his favorite topics. It could have been a collection of essays on his numerous interests. Instead, he decided to write a work of fiction. Ultimately, he chose to write a book of fiction featuring topics of which he’s very knowledgeable but still consisted of world building, working out puzzles, and writing from the perspective of a main character that little resembles him. Green is always encouraging his viewers to challenge themselves in their chosen projects, and he obviously did with this story. That in itself is an absolutely remarkable thing.
“I was addicted to the attention and to the outrage and to the rush of being involved in something so huge,but more than any of that I was just addicted."— Hank Green