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An Absolutely Remarkable Thing

November 27, 2018

An Absolutely Remarkable Thing, by Hank Green, is about fame and about what kinds of things people will do to get attention and approbation on Twitter. It’s also the story of how a ten-foot-tall humanoid statue suddenly appeared in every city on our planet, and how we figured out that this was the work of aliens.

In her post about An Absolutely Remarkable Thing, Kathy at Bermuda Onion includes a photo of the display at the 2018 Book Expo, a ten-foot-tall model of a statue.

The main character of the novel is a young artist named April May. She discovers the first statue on a street in New York City and thinks it’s a work of art. She calls her friend Andy and they make a video about the statue, which they call “Carl,” a name that sticks when the video goes viral. This is how she announces his arrival in that video:
“He arrived sometime before 3 am today, guarding the Chipotle Mexican Grill next door to the Gramercy Theatre like an ancient warrior of an unknown civilization. His icy stare is somehow comforting, it’s like, look, none of us has our lives figured out…not even this ten-foot-tall metal warrior.”
From the first appearance, however, we know that something more is up. April says “I wanted people to wake up and spend a few moments looking at the exceptional amazement of human creation. Hilarious in hindsight.”

April is in love with Maya, who seems to be more intelligent and articulate than April herself:
“Maya was the most effective talker I knew. It was like she wrote essays in her brain and then recited them verbatim. She once explained to me that she thought this was part of being Black in America.
‘Every black person who spends time with a lot of white people eventually ends up being asked to speak for every black person,’ she told me one night after it was too late to still be talking, ‘and I hate that. It’s really stupid. And everyone gets to respond to that idiocy however they want. But my anxiety eventually made me extremely careful about everything I said, because of course I don’t represent capital-B Black People, but if people think I do, then I still feel a responsibility to try to do it well.”

As April’s fame takes off, the story begins to fill with puzzles. The first one is a typo on a Wikipedia page (there are a few pages of “spot the typo”). The next ones are like video games, but they happen in the dreams of anyone who has ever been in the presence of a Carl or another person who has. People who solve the puzzles in the dreams get to go on to the next level.

As her fame increases, April learns how to do TV interviews. She says that she’d “thought about what I’d say if I someday got a soapbox. That income equality is out of hand. That all people are pretty damn similar so it would be great if we stopped hating each other. That prison sentences for nonviolent crimes are dumb and that drug addiction is a health problem, not a crime problem.” When she does get her chance, she finds out that “the real trick is to know exactly the one point you absolutely 100 percent need to get across and also know when to shut your mouth.”

The best parts of the story are the parts where April learns about what it means to be famous and Hank gets to pontificate on the subject, using April as his mouthpiece:
“Most attributes a person has are, at least in some way, defined by them. They are good at soccer, they are funny, they know a lot about the history of Rome, they have blond hair. Some of these things are things that person worked for, some are just things that they happen to have, but they are all characteristics of the person.
Fame is not this way.
Imagine if you looked different to every person who saw you. Not, like, some people thought you were more or less attractive, but one person thinks you’re a sixty-five-year-old cowboy from Wyoming complete with boots and hat and leathery skin, and the next person sees an eleven-year-old girl wearing a baseball uniform. You have no control over this, and what you look like has nothing to do with the life you have lived or even your genome. You have no idea what each person sees when they look at you.
That’s what fame is like.”

April’s fame grows in equal and opposite measure to the fame of her rival Peter Petrawicki, who believes that the Carls are a threat. His fear-mongering hinders the efforts of the group April, Andy, and Maya have set up to share information about the game in the dream so humans all over the world can share the knowledge necessary to progress in the game. The anti-Carl actions of Peter’s group, The Defenders, gives Hank an example for talking about “what happens when groups of passionate believers start to define themselves in opposition to others:
1. A Simple message seems obvious to a large population, and those people can’t understand what the opposition could possibly be thinking. They never or almost never engage with someone who holds those different beliefs, and if they do, it’s in the context of the discussion, not in the context of, like, also being a human.
2. The vast majority of those people nod appreciatively and then change the channel and watch NCIS and eat the tacos that they made. It’s their own recipe. They’ve developed it over years, and they like it better than any taco you could get at even a super fancy restaurant. They go to bed at 10:30 and worry a bit about whether their son is adjusting well to college.
3. A very small percentage get really riled up. They’re angry, but they’re mostly worried or even scared and want to cause some kind of action. They call their representatives and do a little organizing. They’re usually motivated not just by agreement in the message but by a hatred of the people trying to fight the message.
4. A tiny percentage of that percentage just go way the fuck overboard. They get so frightened and angry that they need to make something happen. How? Well, that’s simple, right? You eliminate the people who are actively trying to destroy the world. If we’re all really unlucky, and if there are enough of them, those people find each other and they confirm and exacerbate their own extremism.”

The ending of April’s story is, predictably, open-ended. She thinks that if she solves the dream-puzzle the “grand prize” will be “some gift only the Carls can bestow.” What happens to her makes Andy say that “we are each individuals, but the far greater thing is what we are together, and if that isn’t protected and cherished, we are headed to a bad place.”

Well, as they say on the TV show The Good Place, this is the bad place. What we are together has reached a low point in the U.S., the U.K., and Brazil. It’s going to take more than reading fiction to find a way to pull us out, no matter how good the ideas are.

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6 Comments leave one →
  1. November 27, 2018 9:46 pm

    This book did have a lot of parallels with today’s world. I was surprised at how much I liked it.

    • November 28, 2018 10:12 am

      yeah, I picked it up partly because I thought my adult children would also want to read it.

  2. November 28, 2018 9:42 am

    I am listening to this in the car – almost done. While there are some good things about it, like the parallels, and perhaps insights into Hank Green’s experience, it frequently feels to me like slogging through….

    • November 28, 2018 10:13 am

      I would imagine it’s not a good book to listen to because that’s so much slower than reading it on your own (at least it is for me). I sat down with this one and finished it the same day.

  3. November 29, 2018 8:08 pm

    Well, you’ve made me curious to read this — even though, as you say, it won’t do anything to save the mess the world is in. But it sounds wry and engaging, and that’s a good thing to look for at the end of a reading year.

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