Disclosure: This review is based upon a copy of the book furnished by the publisher. No other consideration was offered.
I really wanted to like The Haters, Jesse Andrews’ latest. I enjoyed Me and Earl and the Dying Girl as a sharp sendup of the tragic cancer girl novel, especially given that it came out at a time when there was some tough competition on that front. Yet, there were some rumblings in that book that concerned me and they came out in full force in The Haters. To be clear, I didn’t dislike the book. I just didn’t really have any emotions at all about it, and it came off as kind of a disappointing experience for me.
The premise: Two friends head to jazz camp even though they are wildly unenthused about jazz, they meet up with an (obligatorily) super hot girl, they all decide to ditch jazz camp, form their own band, and go on a road trip. The trip is filled with many wild adventures as they criss cross the South playing weird gigs in odd places while they get involved in weird run-ins, find a strange hippie commune, and more. They struggle over who should get the girl. They laugh, they cry, they bond. Etc.
The road trip novel (young adult or otherwise) is not a new thing, and it’s been done to varying degrees of success (one of the most notable recent road trip novels is, of course, John Green’s Paper Towns, which, like The Fault in Our Stars, was made into a film). It’s hard to say what, exactly, makes a road trip novel pull together and really work, but you know when a book has the spark and when it definitely does not, and The Haters didn’t quite do it for me, much though I wanted it to.
There was a lot shoehorned into this book, but I think the biggest problem for me was the dude dynamic, which also came into play with Me and Earl and the Dying Girl — I actually don’t read a lot of books with male protagonists lately, so I might be off kilter because of that, but I just couldn’t quite get into the competition over who should get the girl and who was more deserving of her affections. She felt distant and alien to me, less of a real person and more of an unattainable, mythical ‘goal,’ an object to be won as opposed to a human being. She was depicted as quirky and weird and indy and all of the things we’re supposed to be excited about, but there was something one dimensional about her at the same time, turning her into a caricature, a symbol.
Meanwhile, the boys themselves didn’t have a lot going for them either. I love sarcastic, sharp, snappy characters, but they felt a tad too one-note and jaded in a way that didn’t really draw me in as a reader. Even when they did display more emotion, something that differed from the above-it-all sarcasm, it didn’t really add depth to their characterisation because they snapped back into place so quickly. As sometimes happens in fiction, it felt like a book about an authorial insert doing something the writer had always dreamed of doing, the characters just a bit too shiny, just a bit too much out of reach.
It was kind of funny given the context of the notion running through the book, the one that inspires the title — the two guys relish hating on things for no particular reason other than that they can, and it’s turned them into kind of boring, jaded people who don’t really embrace anything. The book could have operated almost as a metacommentary on hipsters, but instead it fell just short. Instead of being a send-up of haters, it fizzled like a wet firework.
For all that this sounds kind of harsh, as though I disliked the book, I really didn’t. It just felt rather bland to me, and I kept longing for it to push a little further in one direction or the other. I couldn’t definitively hate it because it couldn’t make me care enough to invest that much emotion in it. I couldn’t really love or even like it for the same reason. There was nothing thrilling for me in the text, which was really just another rivalry between two dude friends over a lady.
Which was a pity, because I want to believe that the road trip novel hasn’t died yet. The road trip as rite of passage is familiar to so many of us, but maybe that’s why it doesn’t quite work in YA — we all fondly remember the formative road trips we took, and we all want to write idealised, glossy versions of them. Or we all remember the road trips we wish we could have taken, and we write what we imagine we would have done. In both cases, we’re not writing something that’s wholly accessible to readers who are living as teens right now, and ultimately we leave them feeling kind of distanced.
Andrews clearly has a passion for media — it came through in Me and Earl and the Dying Girl with the dude characters’ mutual obsession with film and filmmaking, and here with music. And that may betray the fundamental problem with both books, which feel a little too precocious and pat to me. Perhaps the leads in both are complicated versions of himself, rather than their own people.
Image: bass, Rodrigo Iloro, Flickr