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.