14 February 2016

Books: The Universe Versus Alex Woods by Gavin Extence (2013)

For some of us, including me, Alex Woods is us. Of course, the beauty of a novel is that it becomes hyper-reality, but within those sometimes absurd situations, lies a veracity that makes us love this quirky kid in this delightfully funny novel about a British boy growing up in Glastonbury. We meet our narrator Alex as a seventeen year-old when he’s stopped at Dover customs with 113 grams of marijuana and an urn full of ashes on the passenger seat. 

It is here, as he explains to the police, the story that began years earlier. One a lot of people knew about, but one that no knew would end this way. When Alex was ten, he was hit with a meteor. Well the house took the brunt of the force, but Alex was injured in the head. After miraculously surviving that, it isn’t soon after that he has his first epileptic seizure, which forces him to stay home, not got to school for two years, and forced to pass time at his mother’s tarot shop. But the advantage for him is that it enables him read up on everything dealing with astrophysics or neurology. Of course he was considered different before the meteor, and by the time he finally gets back to school at thirteen, he become what every unusually smart kid seems destined to be, a outsider. Or as he puts it: “A pariah is someone who's excluded from mainstream society. And if you know that at twelve years of age, you're probably an inhabitant of Pariah Town." While escaping a trio of bullies, Alex stumbles into the garden of Mr. Peterson, an older ex-pat American. It soon after their relationship grows as Mr. Peterson introduces young Alex to the works of Kurt Vonnegut. This eventually leads Alex to create an obscure book club called "THE SECULAR CHURCH OF KURT VONNEGUT". But it’s during this time that Mr. Peterson is diagnosed with a terminal illness, and after seeing his wife waste away from pancreatic cancer, Isaac Peterson wants to die with dignity. But he’s realized that to do this, to choose when and where he is leave this mortal coil, eventually means Alex and him must come up a plan that could get a teenager in loads of trouble.

The Universe Versus Alex Woods is Gavin Extence’s debut novel, and is filled with some wonderful humor, dry as a martini, something that only the British seem really capable of doing successfully. The framing structure of using the works of Kurt Vonnegut is rather a brilliant idea, as seems to encourage the reader (and me) to explore that author’s canon (when Alex meets Mr. Peterson for the first time, it’s shortly after the author passed. Isaacs’s dog is named Kurt, as well).  And the use of first person narrative –a device I find at times difficult- actually works here, as it makes the book a more compelling and accessible read. It is often laugh out loud funny (especially the interactions with his mother and older teen friend Ellie), which helps, especially as the last half of the book deals with a person’s right to die. Extence handles these parts in a very empathic way, and though Alex Woods is young in chronological years, he seems to carry an old soul, one that is quirky, but seems to clearly understand his path. This could be called a life affirming book, even with the moral question of euthanasia, but I rather not hobble that around the books shoulders. It’s an enjoyable read, and while it has a message, the author clearly wants his readers to make their own judgments when it comes to euthanasia, just as Alex Woods does here.

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