Being a geek is a kind of a thing now — and while that’s not a bad thing (said the adult, grown-up geek), in the rush to normalize geekdom into acceptance, a few things about being a geek, and especially a young geek, can get airbrushed over. In his new novel The Other Normals, author Ned Vizzini thinks about what’s being airbrushed away — and why it’s not always a good thing that it is.
There’s a part of my new book The Other Normals that divides readers.
It happens halfway through, when the 15-year-old hero, Perry Eckert, has returned to summer camp from his first trip to a fantasy kingdom called “The World of the Other Normals.” Perry has been having trouble talking to a young woman he likes named Anna, who doesn’t think he’s mature enough. Now he’s surprised to find a hair where he didn’t have hair before. When Anna disses him at a dance and calls him a “boy,” Perry — confused and angry — pulls down his pants to show her that at least one part of him is, in fact, becoming a man.
I yelled, “Nooooooooooooo!” when I realized what he was about to do. (A film version of the book is inevitable, and I will be sorely disappointed if that moment isn’t filmed in slow-motion.)
— Leila Roy, Kirkus Reviews
The protagonist is immature to the point of implausibility — like when someone implies he’s immature, so he drops his pants to show the entire camp his lone pubic hair and shout that he is a man after all.
— somebody on Goodreads
I understand the consternation. It gets to one of the big ideas of the book: that being a geek isn’t just cute and lovable. It’s confusing, painful, and likely to be dangerous.
I first knew that I was a geek in kindergarten, during show and tell. Everybody brought in something to show and tell except me — I forgot. The teacher went around picking on each kid as I sat there thinking, “What do I do? WhatdoIdo?” Then I remembered: breakdancing.
I had seen breakdancing on TV. It was a new thing in 1986. A fad. The perfect thing to show and tell. And having seen it on TV, I figured I could do it. What people did was curl into a pretzel and spin on the ground. I could do that. You know why? Because Sesame Street taught me, “You can do anything you put your mind to.”
So I got in the center of the circle and breakdanced.
I’m not sure what it looked like. I assume it looked like a five-year-old wrestling himself. Everyone laughed at me. I burst into tears. The teacher ushered me into a corner where I sat on a chair and got myself together.
But I wasn’t just thinking sad thoughts on that chair. I was thinking about how to exact revenge on my fellow kindergarteners. I was thinking that it would be really cool if the room exploded and they all fell out the window. This bitterness was something I had to work through in high school and beyond — and something Perry learns about when he’s told, “Misfortune is no excuse for cruelty.”
Despite what a decade of blockbuster comic-book films has taught us, being a geek doesn’t necessarily mean winning the love of your life despite your surface imperfections. It doesn’t mean having a cool shirt with the periodic table or liking Dr. Who. It means being a social outcast — and the people who never confront it, or work through it, often turn into super-villains instead of super-heroes. (I’m thinking here of a particular recent psychopath who I won’t honor by naming.)
That was the kind of geek I wanted to portray in The Other Normals — a hopeless one, true-to-life, headed for oblivion. Then, I wanted him to confront his worldview and change, in the following ways:
- learning that being an outcast didn’t give him license to hate other people
- realizing that members of the opposite sex were people too, not unreachable symbols
- gaining the ability to control the zany, desperate energy that would make him do something like pull down his pants in the middle of a dance
The Perry at the end of the book wouldn’t do what the Perry in the middle of the book does. And not just because it’s embarrassing. Because it’s wrong.
The Other Normals: Amazon|Barnes & Noble|Indiebound|Powell’s
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