You might call me a budding ecologist, but that would imply that my life has more purpose than it actually does. 'Aspiring writer' would also be far too grand a title. For now, let's just settle for calling me a man; that, at least, is beyond doubt.
Published March 31st 2013
A mostly conventional coming-of-age tale about an endearingly unconventional teenager.
As I see it, anyone can write a bestselling novel. Look at E. L. James: Fifty Shades of Grey has been sitting atop best-seller lists for the better part of a year, and the woman can use a metaphor about as well as my grandmother can use a computer (and to be clear, that's not very well). What is it that marks a truly great author, then? Well, to my mind, it's the ability to craft memorable and relatable characters. If I were to use this criterion to assess the literary talent of the world's most recognised authors, many would be found lacking. Dan Brown, for example, can try as hard as he likes to dazzle us with his ability to invent outlandish conspiracies by drawing tenuous links between historical figures and organisations, but surely only the least discerning among his readership fails to recognise that his characters are so one-dimensional that they would service his plots equally well if they were replaced by cardboard cut-outs. In contrast, George R. R. Martin, who writes the books upon which the hit TV series Game of Thrones is based, creates characters so compelling that, in many ways, the intricacies of his plotting are of secondary importance. With The Universe versus Alex Woods, British author Gavin Extence has proven himself to be similarly formidable in the characterisation department. And what's more, it's his literary debut.
The Universe versus Alex Woods details a significant chapter in the life of a schoolboy named surprisingly enough Alex Woods, from his inauspiciously being struck in the head by a meteorite at the age of eleven to his equally inauspicious detainment at Dover Police Station at the age of seventeen. The story, narrated by Alex, begins at the end: Alex has just traversed the English Channel on a vehicular ferry and is attempting to pass through customs at Dover's ferry terminal with a glove compartment full of marijuana and an urn containing cremated human remains on his passenger seat. As I've already indicated, he doesn't get far. We are left wondering exactly how Alex, who is about as hardcore as a Teletubbie, got himself into this position, and he is more than happy to oblige our curiosity. What follows is a tale that is quirky, heartwarming and ultimately heartbreaking in equal measure, the likes of which I have not had the pleasure of reading for quite some time.
At the emotional core of this novel is Alex's relationship with Isaac Peterson, a geriatric widower with a penchant for armchair activism and what Alex naively describes as 'herbal cigarettes'. The circumstances under which Alex first crosses paths with Mr Peterson are far from propitious, but our charming protagonist quickly develops a deep affection for the crotchety war veteran. Mr Peterson responds in kind, and what begins as a western-style stand-off in a garden shed blossoms into a beautiful friendship, thanks in no small part to a shared exaltation of the virtues of pacifism, classical music and the complete works of deceased American writer Kurt Vonnegut. Their repartee is punctuated by moments of stunning poignancy, particularly in the latter half of the novel. On occasion, it was only my doubts regarding the extent to which my Kindle is waterproof that prevented me from shedding a tear on Alex's behalf. Without giving too much away, the issue of euthanasia is at the heart of this novel. What with the ongoing furore surrounding gay marriage, it seems that this particular issue has faded into relative obscurity of late. As Gavin Extence subtly reminds us, however, it is one that we should not and cannot ignore. He deals with this controversial issue with remarkable deftness, infusing his characteristically light-hearted prose with admirable gravitas.
As my effusive language might already have suggested, I loved this book. If I were forced to identify any shortcomings, however, I might argue that the storyline occasionally feels as if it lacks any clear direction or purpose. Perhaps it would be remiss of me to place the blame for this as the feet of Extence; if anyone is at fault here, surely it is our eponymous hero, from whose perspective the story is told. As far as I'm concerned, though, Alex is simply beyond reproach. In fact, Alex Woods is so likeable that he could have spent half of the novel describing the ins and outs of crocheting and I wouldn't have minded. As the book's title suggests, Alex is no stranger to adversity: he is bookish and nerdy, has a clairvoyant mother and is afflicted with semi-severe epilepsy as a result of his unfortunate encounter with a meteorite fragment, all of which render him in his own words 'super-supergay' in the eyes of his peers. As goes the oft-quoted clichι, Alex triumphs over this adversity with enviable resolve, and quickly manages to completely win you over with the perfect combination of precocity, guilelessness and all-round goodness. Alex's hilarious matter-of-factness is a particular delight. As I write this, I am reminded of an exchange between Alex and a hospital nurse: upon noticing a reddish bruise on Alex's cheek, the nurse remarks, "Have you been in a fight?" to which Alex soberly replies, "No. I'm a pacifist."
Gavin Extence's writing has earned him some comparisons to Mark Haddon, who wrote the Whitbread Award-winning The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time. While the authors' styles are undoubtedly similar, I feel that this is too convenient a comparison to make. Where Christopher Boone, the 15-year-old idiot savant whose voyage of discovery is the subject of The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time, is something of an oddity, Alex Woods is a character with whom it is comparatively easy to identify. Mark Haddon invites us into the world of Christopher Boone as a voyeur, while Extence invites us to assume the role of an empathetic admirer. And those are two very different things. That is not to suggest that The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time is not a wonderful book; I am merely making the point that it did not engender the warm, fuzzy feeling with which I was left upon finishing The Universe versus Alex Woods. I eagerly await Gavin Extence's next literary creation, but for now I'll have to settle for Alex Woods. Fortunately, that's an inconvenience that I'm only too willing to accommodate.