This novel comes rumbling out of some torn up Manhattan tunnel like a queercore punk nightmare, full of profanity, revolt, degradation, and the sweetest young love you’ve ever tasted on some strange Jack Kerouac night full of piss and vinegar.
Much the way On the Road roared at the right side of the highway from America’s kick back against conformity in the 1950’s, Nick & Norah’s Infinite Playlist assaults the reader from the first page and doesn’t stop jumping until literally the last word of the book, which is, appropriately: “Jump.” Young adult authors Rachel Cohn and David Levithan trade chapters in this novel, with her writing as Norah and him writing as Nick. That accounts for the distinctive voice of each character (written in the ever present YA Biblical tense of FIRST PERSON PRESENT).
The book begins with Nick on stage at some Manhattan club playing bass with his queercore punk band, The Fuck Offs. He’s the only straight guy in the group, comprised of high school seniors. The drummer, Thom (with an H), is less than talented and waits for a solo that never comes in the two minute screaming slashes that they burn, and the lead singer, Dev, is a beautiful slut, ever on the make for his next guy. Nick nearly loses it when his ex-girlfriend Tris comes smoking into the club with her newest guy because she is truly, eternally hot and he is still desperate for her. After the set, he goes to the bar and when Tris approaches him, he turns to the girl next to him, who wears of all things, a flannel shirt in this den of trendy commercially run Ramones tee shirts, and says, “I know this is going to sound strange, but would you mind being my girlfriend for the next five minutes?” Norah answers his question by giving a deep, eye-opening kiss that begins a six hour trip for these two angst ridden teens that doesn’t stop until, well, like, you know, the end.
Alternately attracted and repulsed, Nick tries to deal with Tris strutting around with her new guy, while Norah, who is Jewish, tries to deal with her ex-boyfriend who has just returned from a kibbutz in Israel. They are both POSITIVELY unhip and yet at the same time are the two COOLEST people in the novel. Norah, it turns out, is the daughter of a lifelong A&R man and she grew up traveling the country, going to concerts, and listening to every kind of music there is and digging it all. Right now, she is deeply, wholly, into punk and so, of course, is Nick, who himself is into all different kinds of music, even though right now he’s really into punk. Although he doesn’t know who Norah is, she knows all about him because she’s an old friend of Tris and has listened to and admired the mixes he’s made and the songs he’s written. They are both trying really hard to be people that they’re really not because they love this kind of music and nothing exhilarates either of them more than jumping into the mosh pit when Where’s Fluffy? plays their trashed out rejection of The Man. As Norah sagely remarks: “The mosh pit never lies.”
Although there are things in book that made me seriously pause, look out the window, and wonder how it was possible to write something that sounded so trite and yet rang so true, I raced through the 183 pages in less than a day. The prose carries you forward as if you were just a passenger on their crazy train or a thrashing punk song, and after a while, you don’t really want to get off or see the song end. Long sentences that riff like one of Kerouac’s stream-of-consciousness poems run into even longer paragraphs that run into pages that occur inside one brain or the other and at the end you realize that only a few seconds have passed in the story and it only felt like a few seconds as these pages devoured you!
Most of the book is just laugh-out-loud funny, although there are some pages where you might develop a permanent little chuckle. Cohn and Levithan have such a grip on their writing, however, that this humor can change to heart-rending angst or unexpectedly profound observation within a few words.
The push and pull back and forth between Nick and Norah is a kind of song in itself as they feel their way through their anxieties, work out their past failures, and grope toward a relationship. They are, in some ways, metaphors for our fractured world and if they can work it out, maybe we can work it out. This must be considered a break-through novel in the YA genre, not just for the language, but for the compression of time, the driving style, and the unique young voices that push it forward.
This is a compelling book that should be LOUD on YA radar.
Like it or not.
My review of the movie is located at Nick & Norah’s Infinite Playlist.