A.S. King’s Reality Boy and Narration In Service of Story

I don’t particularly believe in supernatural serendipity, though you are welcome to do so.  I do, however, think that there are happy coincidences that can add joy to our lives if we are open enough to notice them.  Buoyed by some good news a week or so ago, this pessimist drifted about town with no direction in mind.  As you might expect, I ended up at the bookstore, as that is my natural habitat.

There was a reading/Q&A going on, so I quietly and politely went on about my browsing because I felt bad about not knowing about it in advance.  I did, however, notice that the author was fun and a naturally engaging performer.  As you could have guessed, my guilt over crashing the event (in a way) compelled me to pick up a copy of the author’s book and to join the throng of those having it signed.  (As a terribly insecure writer, I have nightmares about holding a reading to which no one comes, even though I have never had a solo reading.)

Long story short, the author is awesome and her book is even better.  A.S. King is a big-time whose books are of interest to readers of all ages, but are specifically targeted at the Young Adult audience.  Reality Boy is her 2013 novel about a young man named Gerald Faust (note the name…) whose parents signed the family up for one of those nanny reality shows when he was five.  Blind to the abuse inflicted upon the family by his vile older sister, Tasha, little Gerald expresses himself in one of the only ways a little kid understands: he poops everywhere.  Unfortunately, he will forever be known to the world at large as “The Crapper.”

So Gerald is angry.  At his mother, at Tasha, at high school classmate jerks who treat him as though he’s still the five-year-old who left a turd in his mother’s shoe for the cameras to find.  You know the overall arc of the rest: Gerald comes to terms with his anger, opens up to the right people, sees that he can make a new life for himself.

I’ve referred before to the near-infinite enthusiasm the Young Adult audience has for great works in the category; here’s a book trailer made by a fan:

And here’s a review from a cool young woman who should be able to convince you to buy the book if you haven’t already done so:

Onto the education.  Ms. King is a very good writer and the book is very solid in terms of craft.  One of the things I admire most about Reality Boy is that it is, as Ms. King describes her work, “gender neutral.”  Now, does it make sense to say that all women will like a certain book?  Of course not.  However, some works, some kinds of subject matter, some tones are going to appeal more to one gender than the other.  This is not necessarily a bad thing and people should read books from all genres and about all kinds of people.  A.S. King turns the trick of making sure that Reality Boy has a little something for everyone.  You have an angry young man whose anger is justified and who needs some love and understanding.  You have an insecure young woman who feels she will never be able to escape the categorization thrust upon her by others.  You have a dysfunctional family.  Reality TV.  Lots of emotions and lots of jokes.  This is a book that cuts across all demographics, as is the case with all great literature.

I’m forever banging on about the need to #MakeMoreReaders.  The statistics show that fewer men and boys are reading literature; Reality Boy is a satisfying book that doesn’t feel like homework.  What else do you want in a book, really?  More importantly: what is the proper balance in your work between “literary” and “entertaining?”  What are our obligations to our audience?  To my mind, Ms. King is the best of both worlds: her book satisfies the mind and heart.

In Reality Boy, Ms. King plays with the narrative a great deal.  In addition to the good, old-fashioned first-person narration–(I did this, I did that…)–the narrative includes:

  • Flashbacks to episodes of the nanny reality show in question
  • Extended sections (that are not too extended) in which the protagonist essentially goes to his “happy place.”
  • A letter from Gerald to the nanny
  • Short chapters split by section headings that perfectly balance dialogue and action with the vast amount of introspection Gerlad must do

One reason Reality Boy succeeds so spectacularly is that Ms. King uses the kind of narration that satisfies the story’s needs.  Some flashbacks can drag down a story.  Please don’t tell John Irving, but I always skip over “The Pension Grillparzer” when I re-read The World According to Garp.  It’s a thick stack of pages right in the middle of the narrative that only relates to the larger narrative in smarty-pants ways that are literary and beautiful, but pump the brakes on the story a bit.  (Your mileage may vary.)  When Ms. King sends Gerald to his happy place, the page or two add to the narrative.  Same thing when the author describes another episode of the reality show.

Ms. King is certainly a great writer and a proud literary citizen; if you haven’t checked out any of her work, do consider ordering signed copies from her home indie bookstore, Aaron’s Books in Lititz, Pennsylvania.  (That’s another way an author can be a good literary citizen!)  And if you’re a YA fan who is surrounded by non-readers or grown-up readers who think they don’t like YA, put this book into their hands.

But don’t take my word for it…

See how much fun Ms. King is during this brief interview with Ariel Bissett, a wonderfully animated writer and reader?

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