Book review: Spontaneous, by Aaron Starmer

My friends, if you have come here seeking a very serious and important book review, I am not at all sorry to relate that you are not going to find it here, for today, we are talking about Spontaneousby Aaron Starmer, a text that is not meant for a serious review. The thumbnail version: If you like explosive love stories, and I do mean explosive, you must definitely read this book, because it is a hilarious but also quite sharp love story about a girl surrounded by people who won’t stop blowing up.

In some ways, it reminds me of Going Bovine: There’s the somewhat self deprecatory narrator who constructs this amazingly lively, beautiful world, and it’s incredibly fun, and it’s also gross, but in such a cartoonish way that you’re not going to be left with your skin crawling even though people are blowing up every few pages. Spontaneously, I should clarify, as in spontaneous human combustion but on steroids.

So it’s kind of a story about that, and how a community falls apart because seniors won’t stop popping off left and right. I mean, think about it, if a group of people of a certain age were liable to just explode without warning or any real explanation, it would put a school, and eventually a town, on edge. It’s about what happens when people start freaking out and searching for any rational explanation, and then there are government conspiracy theories, and then actual government conspiracies, and there’s a determined attempt to keep on with high school, and twin drug dealers, and the ACLU even makes a guest appearance.

But it’s also about love, because, you know, high school, and the end of the world? Recipe for disaster but also for romance, which is what our intrepid narrator, Mara, happens to get. And that’s when you start to realise that the structure of the book is much more clever than it lets on, because while this is a gory and silly adventure, it’s also about a complicated metaphor of love and relationships and belonging and saying goodbye. Senior year is a period when everything really does feel like it’s exploding constantly as your classmates begin to pull apart — some people on to college, others to trade school, others directly into careers, or to travel, or other things. Especially in a small town where you know everyone and are intimately bound with them, senior year is the moment when you realise that everything isn’t going to stay static, that things are changing, and very rapidly, too.

Mara is funny and smart and raunchy and lazy and sometimes very sad, as she tries to dispassionately describe the absolute chaos unfolding around her with her boyfriend at her side. Meanwhile, she’s allowed her best friend to sort of slip away into the deep — she’s so bound up in her new boyfriend and the explosions and everything that the person who has been firmly with her for years kind of passes to the back of her mind. There’s even a great moment where the two are talking and Mara comes to the uneasy realisation that she doesn’t know why they’re even friends, but in a way, that makes the bond even deeper and more important to her.

While there’s a lot going on beneath the surface of this book, it doesn’t really feel the need to clonk you over the head with it, which I appreciate. Even when Mara’s breaking the fourth wall with a coy self-awareness that tells you she knows exactly what she’s doing, you can kind of forgive her for doing something so trite. This is a book that at times feels like a long, rambling, kind of surreal conversation with someone in a setting where you will never see each other again, so they can just go ahead and lay it all out, and also, you’re probably both high. Or maybe one of you is. But you’re not sure which one. (It’s probably you.)

Mara isn’t snarky — she’s more sophisticated and composed than that, and there is a certain earnestness to her that keeps the comedy on an even keel. She doesn’t think she’s better than the people around her and she’s not out to prove anything, she just wants to tell a story that needs to be told, and make sure it gets told in the right way. She understands the power of storytelling — which you will see unfold very graphically in the end stages of the book when everything really starts going to hell — and there is a hint of the Hunter S. Thompson about her, the flamboyant, the wild, the slightly out of control, the defiant.

This is not a story with a cheap way out. It’s no outsiders prevail against the man narrative — the combusted range from the awful to the perfectly reasonable, from people who done terrible things to people who are honestly all right, really. There’s no grand moral for the reader, other than a sense that yeah, the world is a place where things can go to hell in a handbasket very quickly, and you can either succumb to the inevitable or you can rise up and do something about it, but if you do, hell might follow you anyway, so, yeah, prepare for that. Also, don’t do drugs, kids. At least, not adulterated ones from suspect origins. The rest are fine.

Disclosure: This review is based upon a copy of the book provided by the publisher. No other consideration was offered.

Image: Fire, Shan Sheehan, Flickr