Tuesday, February 20, 2007

Nick and Norah

Cohn, Rachel and David Levithan. 2006. Nick and Norah's Infinite Playlist.

Nick & Norah's Infinite Playlist won the 2006 Cybils award in the YA fiction category. Its competition was The Book Thief by Markus Zusak (a more serious book), A Brief Chapter In My Impossible Life by Dana Reinhardt (a more melodramatic book), Hattie Big Sky by Kirby Larson (a more family-friendly book), and Rules of Survival by Nancy Werlin (a harsher and more violent book). Of the five books, I can honestly say that I truly enjoyed four of them. (Don't get me started on A BRIEF CHAPTER OF MY IMPOSSIBLE LIFE). But before the Cybils announcement, I had not read Nick & Norah. It was on my stack of to be read books. So with the announcement, it became top of my list.

Perhaps it was no coincidence that in the past few weeks the Middle_School_Lit group on Yahoo has been discussing profanity in YA books. I am not making the connection that Nick & Norah's is a Middle School book--it isn't--but I just find it interesting to be reading all these postings about what is and is not authentic. And what should authors and editors do about profanity. Should they have more? less? the same? Does profanity make a book authentic? Does profanity establish characters and personalities? Are authors being more creative by using profanity or less creative? Is it harder to not use profane language and keep a book clean? If authors know that using certain words will make it offensive why do they keep using them? Do they not care? Are they making an artistic statement? I will add this to the debate. As a reviewer, how much is too much profanity? In a book of 183 pages--for example--how many times should you reasonably expect to see the f word??? 10? 25? 50? 100? Not even close to the number of times that Cohn and Levithan use it in their collaborative work of fiction NICK & NORAH'S INFINITE PLAYLIST. (Don't believe me, check out page 95 where it occurs 26 times). My question when does excessive (and I would argue that 26 times on the same page is excessive) use of profanity lower the quality of a book? The more profanity is used, the more redeeming, the more satisfying the other elements of the book have to be to make up for the fact that it's so profane. At some point you've got to ask yourself, are these characters just one dimensional characters that like to use the f-word over and over and over and over again for apparently no reason whatsoever? Don't they ever say or do anything else? Isn't there more to a person's character than a particular word??? Is profanity really artistic? Is the best an author has to offer the reader?

I will say this. I read NICK & NORAH'S INFINITE PLAYLIST. I enjoyed Nick & Norah NOT because of the profanity but in spite of the profanity. I didn't enjoy it enough to want to buy it. And I'd hate to have to hear an audiobook of this one. But it had a good story at heart. Nick is a young guy, a bass player in a band. A band where he is the only straight guy. So he's playing at a club and he sees his ex-girlfriend in the crowd. He begins to lose it. It's been three weeks since the break-up and he's still not over her. The thought of her still gets to him. Upsets him. He told her never to come see him play again, and so obviously she had to come and bring along her new boy toy. Enter Norah. Norah is at the club with her friends. She sees the band. She's hanging out at the bar afterwards, not drinking but watching her friend drink herself silly. Nick joins her at the bar after his band finishes up. The next band is on stage, and everything is going fine until....Nick sees his ex-girlfriend and her boyfriend heading his way. He panics and does the first thing that pops into his head. He turns to the girl next to him and says: Will you be my girlfriend for the next five minutes????? The big question that starts a long, quirky nighttime adventure between two young strangers.

The characters were even likeable. While they surrounded themselves with the party crowd who drank, did drugs, smoked, etc...Nick & Norah weren't into underage drinking or illegal substances. And as much as the book uses the f-word, there is very little sexual content (the actual act) in the book. Plenty of references. Some temptation. A few very racy scenes that are not going to sit so well with some readers. And a lot of scenes of questionable taste. I can't see the scenes with the transvestite strippers dressed as nuns stripping to Edelweiss and Climb Every Mountain going over so well with some readers. The truth is there is so much that could just as easily offend as entertain. It could go either way.

If you're offended by profanity, gay clubs, stripping transvestites, underage drinking and partying, sexual references both heterosexual and homosexual...then this book is NOT for you.

The developing love story, the relationship as its being formed, is a good one. Nick and Norah are made for each other. It just depends on how much you're willing to put up with to get to that conclusion. For me, NICK & NORAH was like LOVE ACTUALLY. Love Actually was a movie I bought without seeing it first. I had no idea of the content. Did not like 95% of the movie. There were only two possibly three storylines I cared about. The rest was absurd, offensive, distasteful, excessive nonsense. I liked the Colin Firth storyline where he falls in love with a foreign woman and has to learn the language so he can go back and propose to her. And I liked the widower and his young son storyline where they are coping with loss and death and discovering how to live again. The rest of the stories ranged from awful to nasty to pointless to stupid.

I should also mention since I'm focusing on what not to like in the book. That I actually LIKED elements of the writing style. I thought some of the sentences that weren't filled with profanity were actually quite beautiful and rhythmic. Very musical. Very enjoyable. But I think at least one of the authors got confused into thinking that profanity WAS the style of the novel instead of just a minor part of the style.

I am ticking, I am the pulsing, I am underneath every part of this moment. We don't have a drummer....I am the generator. I am listening and I am not listening because what I'm playing isn't something I'm thinking about, it's something I'm feeling all over. All eyes are on us. Or at least that's what I can imagine in my stageblindness. (1)

I throw the chords at them, I drench them in the soundwaves, I am making time so loud that they have to hear it. I am stronger than words and I am bigger than the box I'm in, and then I see her in the crowd and I fall apart. (2)


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