The Bureaucracy of the Supernatural: A Review of Neil Smith’s “Boo”

Boo Neil Smith
image source: news.nationalpost.com

Warning: Spoilers ahead!

“The facts of America do not apply here. The fact is that an unplugged lamp should not turn on… the fact is that people should not vanish into thin air when they die.” 

I came across Boo, by Neil Smith, through an interview with the author on CBC radio. It sounded worth reading, but I couldn’t remember the title or author, so I went to Chapters and sleuthed around until I found it in a “New Can-Lit” display.

Boo is about Oliver Dalrymple (nicknamed “Boo” for his pale appearance), a young boy who wakes up in heaven.

The story is narrated by Boo in the form of an extended letter to his loving mother and father. He hopes that, if he can ever get it to them, it will ease their pain. Throughout the narrative of his death, we learn more of his life – severely bullied and obsessed with science, Boo was a weird-looking loner frequently stuffed into his periodic table-decorated locker. He’s a bit of a smartass, though unintentionally, and has a weird sense of humour that comes across in his narration.

I was particularly drawn to Boo’s narrative style. There is something subtle about the formality of his tone, and the character himself, that reminds me strongly of one of my close friends. Though he’s hardly a typical teenage boy – being dead and all – Boo seems familiar and amiable in a way. We want to be nice to Boo. We also might want to make fun of him, just a little bit.

What I like best about the novel are the intricacies of the setting and the characters’ nonchalant attitudes towards them. It is the “bureaucracy of the supernatural” – where something mysterious and otherworldly turns out to be run in a similarly mundane fashion as our own world. There’s no escape.

As he explains to his parents, Boo’s heaven is a place called Town, surrounded by walls and entirely populated and run by thirteen-year-olds. The afterlife is subdivided by age and country, so Boo is surrounded by everyone else who died in America at the age of thirteen. Once someone dies and comes to Town they stay there for about fifty years, so that they get a chance to live out a full lifetime. With its city council of thirteen-year-olds and rummage-sale furniture, Town reminds me of being homeschooled (I started school in grade six, after years of kid-focused nonstructural learning).

Town has hospitals and cafeterias and a thriving arts scene. Books, food, and other things are provided as needed by what most “Townies” assume to be God. There are art classes, support groups for getting over being murdered, and a museum of curious things including a revolver and a kitten. Townies do not grow old and their bodies don’t change; wounds heal themselves, buildings repair themselves, and traumatic memories are often wiped. Smith captures the intricacies of a thirteen-year-old personality so nicely: the uncertainty, the bravado, the desperation for answers. Boo figures he lost a few IQ points but gained a few social skills, and makes friends. He does much better in Town.

At first attributing his death to a heart condition, he soon realizes that there’s more to it than expected with the arrival of Johnny, another boy from his school who died shortly after Boo. Johnny insists that they were murdered at school by some crazy kid he calls “Gunboy”, and, along with their friends, the two boys try to solve their own deaths while navigating the peculiarities of the afterlife. Desperate to find a portal back to the living world, Johnny’s quest for revenge upstages Boo’s curiosity-fuelled scientific quest for understanding when they run into a boy Johnny is convinced killed them. From there, the story quickly snowballs into a clash of friendship, violence, and the supernatural.

Smith’s world and characters are surprisingly uplifting, and the plot was charming and exciting. Every time they think they’ve caught an answer it escapes, and the story gets more involved until the intense climax. In the bittersweet conclusion, Johnny is given a second chance and Boo learns more about himself than he ever did while alive. Town gives Boo what he needs in order to both find the truth and be happy with himself. It is, in the end, his own heaven as he needed it to be.

-Contributed by Risa Ian de Rege

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Review of Wychman Road by Ben Berman Ghan

wychman

It’s an age-old question, one that has embedded itself in the consciousness of humanity for as long as we can perceive, and that dares us to consider the impossible: What would we do with god-like powers? What if we could enter the minds of our peers; if we could be faster than they are, stronger; if we could make them do whatever we wanted?

Ben Berman Ghan’s Wychman Road is the newest installment in the literary exploration of this particular tantalizing possibility. His novel follows the journey of two characters, one who is thrust into a world of unimaginable power, and one who has gone way too far down a dark path and yearns to regain his lost humanity.

First and foremost, what is rewarding about Ghan’s novel is the bond forged between his protagonists. Joshua Jones is a traumatized, century-old veteran trapped in the body of a twenty-two-year-old, while Peter Alexson’s inexperience in his harsh new world runs far deeper than his adolescence. The novel dedicates much of its time to carefully developing the brotherhood between these unlikely companions, and it is the strength of their friendship that drives the plot forward, leading to moments of self-realization and sacrifice.

The characters themselves are believable and unique in their own right. Joshua’s strong, stoic exterior reveals a softer, more childlike nature; and Peter’s complex feelings as a kid who receives ultimate power at the cost of great tragedy realistically flips between him feeling like Superman and wanting his uncomplicated life back. With this novel, Ghan demonstrates awareness for both its genre and the nature of youth.

The horror elements of the story stand out as the most refined and skillfully crafted. Ghan’s real talent shines in creating moments of suspense and foreboding, and his villains are a particular treat, combining a sadistic charm with some truly horrifying action. Ghan’s vision of the corruption of ultimate power is embodied in the characters of Christopher Patera, whose detachment from humanity after millennia has twisted him into a kind of monstrous god-figure, and McGrath, whose gleeful fascination with children, and with breaking them down into sad empty shells, evokes the bad-touch-spine-shivers every time he appears.

As we delve deeper into Joshua’s twisted past, we get some truly excellent flashback sequences, darkly humorous and deeply disturbing. These are some of the best in the novel, as Ghan’s wit aAnd wickedly black comedy shines through in these horrifically entertaining scenes.

Wychman Road is a worthwhile read for any fan of the speculative. This novel does well in carving out a hidden fantastic world within the familiar landscape of our own Toronto streets. It is an absorbing beginning to what I imagine will be an action-filled and engaging series.

-Contributed by Amy Wang