Review of NOGGIN by JOHN COREY WHALEY
(review based on an advance reading copy)
This didn’t seem like my type of book at all. I would have passed over it except someone literally shoved a copy in my hands at a book conference and declared, “You have to read this!” (That kind of thing happens more often at book conferences than in the rest of the world.) Boy, were they right. I had to read this and now you do, too!
At only sixteen years old, Travis was dying. Then doctors gave him an opportunity to volunteer for implausible medical procedures that they expected might be ready not that far into the future. Though presented with a few equally far-fetched options, Travis and his parents took a chance on the following: removing his head from his dying body, freezing it until such time that this procedure becomes ready, and then transferring his head to a donor body. You might already see why I didn’t think I would like this book. I balked and scoffed at this premise, utterly unconvinced, but upon starting NOGGIN it became apparent near immediately that this story isn’t about convincing explanations behind a science fiction premise; it’s about the characters and their emotions and this resurrection-type surgery serves as one intense catalyst.
As you probably already gathered, scientists do perfect this method and bring Travis back when someone with a brain tumor donates his otherwise healthy body for the procedure. Five years have passed, but Travis is still sixteen years old and feels like no time at all has passed. NOGGIN stays firmly rooted in characters and emotions. A huge part of why I managed to hop on board with the bizarre surgery concept so quickly is the following quote: “My parents took a little less convincing than I’d thought. They loved me. I was dying. This was a way for me to not be dying anymore.” No one, Travis included, really believed this procedure would work, let alone that he would come back a mere five years later, but at the time when they thought they were saying goodbye forever volunteering for a possible resurrection eased everyone’s pain. Now Travis discovers how much more complicated coming back from the dead is than he ever imagined. To him, no time has passed, but his loved ones considered him dead, mourned him, and moved on. He feels like he merely woke up from a somewhat strange night’s sleep, but his parents have given away all his possessions and strangers are sending him fan mail calling him a miracle and hate mail calling him an abomination. To makes matter worse, both his girlfriend and best friend have aged five years. His girlfriend’s engaged to someone else and won’t come see him while his best friend Kyle’s keeping a big secret. (Before Travis had his head chopped off from his original body, Kyle revealed that he’s gay, admitting that he wouldn’t even be telling Travis this if Travis weren’t dying and, hence, taking the secret with him. Of course, Travis expected Kyle would come out on his own time and now feels immensely disappointed to discover his friend casually talking about a girlfriend and pretending that conversation five years ago never happened.)
I loved the voice. Travis feels so real and following his train of thought so natural. His reactions to a bizarre surgery also helped ground an unrealistic premise for me. He balks at the idea of cutting off his head let alone attaching it to a new body, but comes around to the idea merely as a way to placate all the people insurmountably distraught over his inevitable death.
Questions pop up before the story even starts, from the premise alone. I certainly consider NOGGIN a great one for discussion. There’s the role media plays in all of this. Travis isn’t returning to his old life after all. He’s returning to one where he’s a celebrity, the second person to survive this extreme resurrection-type surgery. Being a minor, the media has to keep a reasonable distance, but they’re still there: wanting to know every little thing about him, as if Travis doesn’t have enough on his mind. Then there’s the passage of time. Five years have gone by, but Travis remains sixteen and feels like he only woke up one morning and everyone jumped ahead of him. He has a very hard time grasping that he can’t return to his previous life, that he’s starting anew. He doesn’t understand why his old friends resist seeing him at first or how his girlfriend could be engaged to someone else. (Sidenote: While I adored this book, the people I know who didn’t cite Travis’ inability to grasp the five-year difference. I found this believable and tragic, but I know others who grew frustrated with his determination to maneuver everything back to how it was before.) As Travis’ father points out, “They’ve grieved you for years and now they’re being asked to un-grieve you, and, sadly, that just isn’t something that very many people understand, because, well, it’s never been a possibility before now.” Which also brings up the fact that there are a lot of great quotes packed into this novel.
NOGGIN had me crying not once but practically throughout the entire second half of the book, with some scenes calling for a small trickle and others turning on the faucets. (As I mentioned before in earlier reviews, I’m not an easy crier when it comes to fiction.) While some people might have felt annoyed with how Travis won’t accept that his girlfriend is five years older, has mourned his death, and found someone new, I found the whole thing tragically believable. All this time, Travis assumed he was signing on for this procedure to pick up with his teenage life. He also considered the possibility that everyone he knew might be dead by the time the technology was perfected, but he never contemplated the in between: when enough time has passed to change everyone from the people he remembers. It wasn’t just Travis’ relationship with Cate, either, that opened my heart (and my tear ducts). Imagining what it must be like for parents who have spent five years trying to move past their teenage son’s death only to get him back earned more tears than I can count. I also shed some general tears for what it must be like for the world to change for you overnight, for how utterly overwhelming this must be for Travis. I do want to specify that some books that make you cry and you resent them for it while others make you cry and you love them for it. I loved NOGGIN for making my cry.
I found the ending satisfying but not quite as much so as I wanted. Much feels unresolved, ending on a note that everything will be hard for Travis and I think, “Yeah, we know that. That’s why we wanted to read a book about how he deals with everything.” Also the ending zeroes in on only one aspect of Travis’ complicated life rather than considering the whole mess.
If NOGGIN doesn’t look like your kind of book, I suggest considering it again. I didn’t think I could hop on board such an improbable premise, but Travis’ voice, the cast of wonderful and real characters, and the emotional implications of such a strange catalyst make NOGGIN one of my favorite reads so far in 2014.