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This Bowie-inflected YA novel is an elegant and elliptical portrait of teen angst

The Strange Fascinations of Noah Hypnotik by David Arnold Penguin Young Readers
Constance Grady is a senior correspondent on the Culture team for Vox, where since 2016 she has covered books, publishing, gender, celebrity analysis, and theater.

The Strange Fascinations of Noah Hypnotik, the latest from YA author David Arnold, is a shivery and vaguely psychedelic story about loneliness and the multiverse and change and adolescence. If that sounds too heady, it’s also about David Bowie and Marvel comics.

Noah Oakman is 16 years old and feeling stuck. He wears the same clothes every day (a Bowie T-shirt; his favorite Bowie song is “Changes”). He eats the same food and watches as his parents watch the same TV show (Friends) and his sister watches the same movie (Breakfast at Tiffany’s). He hangs out with his two best friends, twins Alan and Val, with their relationship in a “delicate triangle” that none of them will ever allow to evolve or change, lest it destroy the balance of the friendship.

And Noah knows exactly what will happen in two years. He and Val and Alan will all go to college in the same general area: Alan to DePaul to study animation, Val to the School of the Art Institute of Chicago to study photography, and Noah to the University of Milwaukee on a swimming scholarship. They’ll visit each other on breaks. It will all be like high school.

That Noah doesn’t particularly care for swimming, and that he craves change, seems beside the point. His future will march on more or less against his will, much as his present does.

“It’s like my life is this old sweater,” Noah says. “And I’ve outgrown it.”

Change is introduced into Noah’s life in the personage of a homeschooled kid named Circuit, and it is to Arnold’s credit that he has the kind of deft and deadpan voice and just slightly off-kilter world-building it takes to accommodate a character named Circuit. Circuit meets Noah at a house party, plies him with weed, and takes him back to his house to hypnotize him. “You want a new trajectory,” Circuit says straightforwardly, and Noah can’t disagree.

When he wakes up the next morning, Noah finds that his world has changed around him in fundamental and unsettling ways. Some of it’s minor changes in pop culture affiliation (his parents switch from Friends to Seinfeld, Alan from DC to Marvel, Val from film-inspired photography to music-inspired photography). And some of the changes are bigger. Noah’s mother has a scar now that she didn’t have before, and she can no longer look him in the eye. Val and Alan want to go to California for college now instead of Chicago, and they have absolutely no problem leaving Noah behind to get there.

All that remains unchanged are Noah’s strange fixations: a time-lapse video of a woman aging over 40 years, a mysterious lost photograph, the books of Mila Henry, and an old man with a goiter who walks the same route every day. They’re all objects of particular fascination to Noah, and what’s more, he realizes as he tries to piece together what has happened to his world, they are all images of loneliness.

As Noah embarks on a quest to figure out exactly what has happened to him, Arnold starts to delve into deep questions about loneliness and inertia, and about what kinds of change are constructive and what kinds are not. What’s most exciting is Noah’s slow realization that the things he wants are not the most important things in the world, and that the people he cares about have wants and needs of their own that will not always mesh with his.

Arnold’s prose is quippy and pop-culture-inflected throughout, but it’s also not afraid to delve deep into Noah’s philosophical quandaries. It’s the voice of a likable, thoughtful kid in way over his head, both charming and analytical.

This is the kind of book that will appeal strongly to teenagers like Noah who are just starting to think about what they want from their futures, but it’s also immensely enjoyable to read as an adult. It’s a funny, eerie, beautifully textured book, a strange fascination in and of itself.

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