Friday, November 4, 2011

What is "The Future of Us" ?

I’ve read a few nostalgic books in the past several months. When I say nostalgic here, I mean that these books either occur sometime in the past of my own timeline (i.e. 80’s or 90’s) or frequently reference pop culture from that period. Most notable of these is the brilliantly entertaining novel Ready Player One, which I reviewed (most favorably) this past summer. So, when I grabbed my advanced copy of Jay Asher and Carolyn Mackler’s highly anticipated young adult novel The Future of Us, I was ready to take a trip down memory lane and enjoy a novel with a rather cool premise. Now, having finished it, I’m stuck here at my computer trying to figure out if this book is a hit or a miss for teens. So, before I get to my pondering I should give a little synopsis.

It’s 1996. Sixteen-year-old Emma has just received her first desktop computer when her neighbor and good friend Josh stops by with an America Online free install disk. The two upload the program, create an email account for Emma, and a small blue box appears in the middle of the screen asking for a repeat Emma’s login information, a webpage pops up, filled with pictures and text, its logo says it’s called Facebook, and the year on the page is now.

Needless to say, Josh and Emma are looking at their future. They spend the rest of the book trying to understand the actions that led to the lives they see on their pages, and in Emma’s case trying to change, and change, and change the life she doesn’t think she wants. I’ll start of with saying that this is a seriously cool premise. I too got America Online in ’96, and at 15, if I saw my current Facebook page who knows what I would change or I how would feel about the path my life has taken in the 15 years between. That was the part of this plot that had me picking up this book in the first place (that and the fact that Jay Asher’s Thirteen Reasons Why was both brilliant and devastating). Here’s the past that I had trouble with; the plot devises, to me became a way for the authors to drop in frequent, and often unnecessary references to fads and culture that took me out of the story. Instead of focusing on the action I found myself saying “Oh, yeah, Oasis’ Wonderwall, I remember the first time I heard that” or “we used to rollerblade or skateboard everywhere, I remember when [insert skater friend’s name here] used the wax for my surfboard to wax the curb in front of my house so he could grind on it” or “I remember my Discman, it was so awesome, I could even hook it up to my car with this cool cassette adaptor”.  You see, the authors know that these things were part of the 90’s teenage life, but instead of incorporating them briefly and seamlessly into the text, it felt forced—like they said to each other, “Hey, remember this? We gotta drop that in.” It’s as though they are forcing their own nostalgia on their young prospective readers. Oddly enough, I checked their ages, and if Wikipedia is correct they are 36 and 38 respectively, which takes them just out of reach of the teens they have created. So, it’s not even really their own teenage nostalgia, they would have been in their 20’s in 1996. Please don’t think this means that authors need to create characters in their own age-span, that is ridiculous, and we, quite frankly would be missing out on a bevy of amazing novels if that were the case. What I’m trying to say, is that the pop culture references are so forced, it makes it seem like the authors can’t help, but reminisce on what it was like to be a teen in 1996, so to find out that they are beyond the age range was a little confusing to me.  

Here’s another issue I had. The nostalgia seems to call to people my age, but the writing, and the character building is a bit weak, skimming the surface, where it could easily go deeper, but also it’s very specifically aimed at today’s teens. It is not a crossover, the writing and characters are not compelling enough for adult readers, the content clearly young adult, but the nuts and bolts of the writing—primarily the constant presence of pop culture appears to be aimed at the 30 somethings. It’s like they wrote the book for us and then took out the meat, and packaged it for teens. The thing is, teens love the meat. They like complex stories and characters just as much as adults do, and I’m trying to figure out if they can read this book, which can’t quite decide who it’s audience is, and enjoy it, without a lot of eye rolling.  

So my question is—can teens enjoy this book? Maybe. The meddling with your future aspect of the novel is appealing and interesting, so perhaps that is what will catch their eyes and minds. Perhaps I’m biased because I couldn’t get past my own nostalgia of the era, so it became a roadblock in my enjoyment of the text. Am I blind to the entertainment because of this? I think that is very well possible. Yet I can’t help thinking that the lack of depth to the characters, the mere brushes with real deep emotion and conflict is something that presents an actual problem with the text, and is a bit of an insult to young adult readers who have grown accustomed to more complexity in their reading.

In short, am I wrong in my assessment? What I would really like is for a teen to read The Future of Us and give me feedback. I want to know if the nostalgia really is an overused prop that does nothing to propel the story excepting of course, the dawn of the internet age and America Online. I would be remiss if I did not mention that this element is truly essential to the story and does capture the nuances of the old dial-up platform very well.

Here’s my call to action—if you are a teen and you read this book, please send my your own review or just a few thoughts. I really want to know how you view this book. Am I just the wrong age to enjoy it for what it is? Comment back with your thoughts, for once, I actually want to hear what everyone else is thinking.

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