Summer Reading – What I learned from Neal Shusterman

It’s been a few years since I’ve read what could be classified as Thrillers. I went through this Clive Cussler stage at the beach one summer. I read about six Cussler novels and found them quite entertaining if not a little formulaic. And there’s the Christian Fiction author named Ted Dekker that writes some very trippy fiction. There were more than a few times I found myself cringing at some of his more gruesome descriptions (but if you haven’t read any of his stuff check it out. Blink is pretty cool). I generally consider thrillers to be good summer-fluff reads.

Unwind plays like a thriller, but it’s not just summer fluff. I could talk about how the characters do become a little cardboard once they undergo “change”, but they do change. I could talk about how the villains seem a bit more like caricatures than actually scary people. But the motivating fear is that at any point the characters’ struggles will be invalidated by their unwinding, so I can forgive (to a degree) the villains. The things that make this novel pack some punches are the socio-political and religious debates that serve as the subtext.

At one point the main character – Connor – and three other boys are being transported in giant metal crates via a 747 being sent to the airplane graveyard. This is a particularly tense scene in the novel because none of the teenagers are sure that they are actually being transported to safety, or that they’ll survive the flight. In the midst of the uncertainty a smart-alecky Hayden asks the other boys the “big questions”. Like when does life begin? What happens to us when we die? If you don’t really die when you’re unwound then what happens to your consciousness?

Meanwhile, unbeknownst to the four boys in the transfer crate a boy named Cy-Fy is under the compulsion of a piece of his transplanted brain to travel to Mississippi. It’s a chilling scene when Cy-Fy arrives at his destination. It seems that the part of the brain Cy-Fy got didn’t realize it had been unwound and was making a desperate attempt to absolve itself and avoid unwinding. It’s absolutely abhorrent.

Shusterman does a very good job of revealing to teenagers that they are capable of serious, heavy thoughts. It’s funny because teenagers often behave as if when they use their higher reasoning they’ll no longer be cool (sometimes their use of higher reasoning is stunted by the slowly developing frontal lobe, but that’s not too much of an excuse). A line that was repeated throughout that I loved was Connor realizing that because of Risa he’d begun to use his brain.

On his website Shusterman continually refers to himself as a storyteller. I read a few of his blog entries and he seems very concerned with delivering a moral couched in his stories. Because of my upbringing this moralistic, parable type story appeals to me, and for a long time I operated under the belief that all of my stories had to have a purpose or a lesson. I think the danger in forcing a lesson into each story you write is that the need to be didactic can take over and strain the story. I now believe it’s better to have a more organic approach. Some people will see a moral in anything they read, even a simple poem about a kitchen. Others won’t. I no longer feel the need to try to force it.

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