Hank Green’s debut novel, An Absolutely Remarkable Thing, shows the best and worst sides of the social internet – or humanity in general – but manages to stay unrelentingly hopeful and optimistic. This first book of a science-fiction duology is unbelievably relevant, but also a very entertaining adventure story.
One night, young graphic designer April May stumbles upon a giant robot sculpture in New York. Fascinated by what she assumes is merely a masterfully done art piece, April decides to call her best friend, film a video with him and the mysterious being she calls Clark and upload it to Youtube. By the next morning her life is changed forever. Identical figures have appeared all around the world. As the famous discoverer and defacto “Carl expert”, April finds herself at the centre of the mystery of the Carls. Because no-one knows where they came from and what they want.
Hank Green is the younger brother of John Green, the author of The Fault in Our Stars and several other young adult novels. Hank Green publishes videos on the Vlogbrothers Youtube channel with his brother, as well as his own music and several podcasts. He is the co-founder of the video conference VidCon and the CEO of an online video production company. And these are just a few of his most known projects. Now he is also the author of the novel An Absolutely Remarkable Thing.
I confess that I am a fan of Hank Green and am therefore biased. I was already expecting to like the book, but Hank Green exceeded my expectations by far. An Absolutely Remarkable Thing is a gripping tale that deals with many topics that are relevant for our current political and social situation. I can’t wait to read the sequel.
The Narrative Style
As I already mentioned, I am a Hank Green fan. I am familiar with his videos and podcasts, so I know his voice and his style of narration from his other works. Still, I was surprised how identifiable his voice was in An Absolutely Remarkable Thing. The main character is a young, bisexual woman called April May. A completely different person from Hank Green. And yet, there were several instances where I thought that she sounded like Hank Green.
The reason for that is probably that the story is written in the style of a memoir. April May tells her story from the first perspective, about a time in her life that the imagined reader knows from the news etc. There are some parts that read more like non-fiction. They explore the nature of (social) media, fame and power, art and content, fact vs. opinion, branding and other themes. Those parts could just as well have been from vlogbrothers Youtube videos.
Apart from the this-sounds-like-Hank-parts, April May is very different from her creator. Her experience as a bisexual woman in online spaces, as well as in the “real world” were very realistic.
After I finished reading the book, I read some reviews on Goodreads. There, I found out that some people thought of April as an unlikable character. I had the very opposite impression. Just like any other interesting character, she makes mistakes. Since she tells her story from an unknown point in the future and with a retrospective perspective, she does not just explain her motivations, but also expresses remorse for her mistakes. Of course, as a first person narrator, she is unreliable. She has basically become a PR expert. Is her remorse real or a PR move? She herself admits that she does not want to be hated. How much is she manipulating the reader? Questions like these make her a fascinating character and narrator. For my part, I can’t help but like her and believe her.
„And I’m telling you this because I want you not to hate me. You’re probably going to hate me in a couple of pages, and I’m giving you a well-rounded understanding of my psychological turbulence so that you will hate me less.“ (p.113)
In the Style of a Memoir
To return to the narration style: the memoir style works brilliantly.
It partly makes the whole book seem like a transcript of a storytime Youtube video. That comes across as intimate and approachable. “I told you there would be drama” says April May to her imagined readers at one point. This narration style does not just make April May seem likeable, but it also helps build suspense. For example, a specific date is mentioned several times. Something happens on that date, that the imagined reader knows about, but us real readers do not. This discrepancy between the imagined and the real reader is fascinating to me.
„That interview aired on July 12, so I guess we all know what the next chapter’s going to be about. Though I’ve got a juicy detail about that day that I’ve never told anyone, so if you’re thinking of skipping, rethink.“ (p.211)
A Lot More Hopeful Than I Expected
In the face of the unknown, extreme viewpoints can emerge quite often. This is demonstrated very well in this book. The opinions over Carl differ extremely. Especially the emerging of polar opposite viewpoints on the social internet, which Hank Green knows very well, is shown in a realistic fashion. What makes this novel special is that the narration stays unrelentingly optimistic and hopeful. And that even though Hank Green is not afraid to show the darker sides of humanity. After reading a whole book on how negatively people can react to the unknown, the unrelenting optimism gave me goosebumps.
„This is what humanity is, solidarity in the face of fear. Hope in the face of destruction.“ (p.242)
I mainly wrote about the narrative style in this review, since that seems to be the most devise aspect of the novel. Some readers thought that Hank Green would have been better off with writing a non-fiction book, like an essay collection about internet fame. I actually enjoyed the non-fiction like parts very much.
That is why have not written much about the plot. The puzzles that the characters a re confronted with, are exciting, the twists are surprising. I found the whole plot to be very suspenseful and exciting. An Absolutely Remarkable Thing could be described as part Ready Player One and part Arrival. Interesting and relevant topics are explored within the frame of an exciting story full of mysterious puzzles. Additionally, some parts reminded me of the Meg Cabot’s novels. The Princess Diaries novels in particular. For those unfamiliar with that series, that comparison comes probably out of left field, but others will probably know what I mean.
Overall, I would definitively recommend An Absolutely Remarkable Thing (just beware that there are some swear words and that sex is thing that happens but is not described in detail). Hank Green is currently working on the sequel, but no specific date for publication has been announced yet.
Lastly, I want to share some videos and articles that I greatly enjoyed:
Article: How YouTube icon Hank Green found hope in a story of viral fame, politics, and giant robots
There is an interview included in this article. I found these Hank Green quotes particularly interesting:
„we are all stories that we tell ourselves. I think you are a story you tell yourself and every person is, and we have this narrative that we keep in our mind that is who we are. That is why stories are so important to us as people, because ultimately, this trick of storytelling was not just a trick of communicating information, it was a trick of establishing self“
„But the question is, like, what is the story that I have become in other people’s minds, and to what extent do I control of that story, and to what extent am I out of control of that story?“