No Happy Endings – Dan Josefson’s That’s Not A Feeling

Sometimes I find a novel because a friend recommends it.  Sometimes, I just happen to pick it up off the shelf.  And sometimes, an author blurb is enough to make me want to read a book.

In the case of That’s Not A Feeling, it was definitely the author blurb that made me look twice at it.  On the cover, David Foster Wallace claims, “Dan Josefson is a writer of astounding promise and That’s Not A Feeling is a bold, funny, mordant, and deeply intelligent debut” which is pretty damn good praise.

Now you could bring up the fact that I still haven’t completed Infinite Jest, or you could accept the fact that Wallace has a mind of literature unlike most other writers.  His stellar intelligence leads me to believe in just about anything he says he has enjoyed, even if he had been dead nearly four years when the book was finally released.

So what did I think of it?  Well, I’m no DFW, but… here’s my take!

That’s Not A Feeling
Dan Josefson
358 Pages
Soho Press
October 2, 2012

The novel takes place mostly in and around The Roaring Orchards School For Troubled Teens, a fictionalized institution in Upstate New York.  Our narrator is sixteen year old Benjamin, who is committed by his parents to the institution after a steady stream of behavioral problems, including two failed suicide attempts.

What Benjamin learns very quickly is that Roaring Orchards has a rather ridiculous number of even more ridiculous rules.

For instance, a misbehaving student’s privileges can be “popped,”  which means they no longer have access to the item (which could even include a sofa, or a chair).  So if a chair was popped, the student would no longer be able to use it, even though the chair would remain undamaged.

Other times, a student might be “ghosted” which would not allow anyone, student or teacher, to acknowledge the presence of the punished student.  A ghosted student could be talked about, but never directly addressed.

The headmaster of Roaring Orchards, a frighteningly eccentric man named Aubrey, is the main impetus behind the entirety of the novel (after all, the school wouldn’t exist without him!).  Even half-way through the novel, I found myself attempting to guess how he would react only to discover… I couldn’t.  As the book progresses, Aubrey goes further and further over the edge and his decision-making seems increasingly rash and (to a point) absolutely insane.

As Aubrey starts coming apart, it becomes increasingly clear that (despite the overpowering and confusing system of rules and regulations) he is really the only thing holding the school together.

But as important as Aubrey is in giving the plot motion, he’s definitely more of a background character.  Benjamin, as the new student, is our eyes and ears at Roaring Orchards.  He soon teams up with a girl at the school, Tidbit, and they end up connecting in surprising ways.

The book was a great read overall, but I have one semi-major complaint.  The narration is… odd.  For one thing, Benjamin often narrates the story from his own perspective, but every few pages, either Benjamin becomes omniscient, or a completely different narrator takes over.

Whomever the narrator is in these third-person areas, it still sounds like Benjamin… but the effect is rather jarring.  At first, I thought I had simply skimmed over a transition, but… no.  The narration changes gears very abruptly, sometimes in the middle of a page.

It doesn’t completely kill the flow of the novel, but I would spend good chunks of time obsessing over who the narrator was and, if it was still Benjamin, how he had accumulated the knowledge he had.

Still, the story is good, the characters and dialogue are funny, absurd, and believable, and to top it all off… there’s no real ending to the book.  Josefson provides a lot of details, but there’s plenty of indications that Benjamin and Tidbit engage in more adventures beyond the end point for the novel… still, I love it when an author isn’t afraid to tie up every loose end in a story.

In addition to David Foster Wallace’s quote, I also discovered the novel because it was featured on Barnes & Noble’s Discover Great New Writers display.  Barnes & Noble did a brief interview with Dan Josefson that is well worth reading.

Also worth checking out is an interview with Atlantic Monthly where Josefson discusses the Wallace blurb, as well the reason the narration skips around, which is great.

So what does the future hold for this blog?  Well… I’d certainly like to be here more!  After about a month of little-to-no reading, I’ve actually finished three books in the past week (including two advance readers) and plan to start writing at least two posts a week… A review and something else.  Maybe a top 10 list, maybe a quick quip… just something to keep the posts flowing.

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