BOOKS: John Reviews “Nick & Norah’s Infinite Playlist” by Rachel Cohn and David Levithan

Once again proving that Hollywood hasn’t had an original idea in decades, that new movie Nick and Norah’s Infinite Playlist starring Michael Cera and Kat Dennings is based on a YA novel of the same name.  (While we’re on the subject, Sexdrive is based on YA novel All The Way, but I couldn’t find that at Barnes & Noble.)  It’s a little bit Romeo and Juliet, a little bit When Harry Met Sally, a dash of Sid and Nancy for that punk rock flavor, and just the slightest hint of my personal favorite YA novel ever, The Perks of Being a Wallflower (by Steven Chbosky.)  I may have had my personal misgivings about the title (An infinite playlist would require no effort, since you would hear every song ever recorded in every possible order an infinite number of times) but thankfully the story itself shines through its veneer of hipsterness.  The beginning may be fraught with attempts to establish the characters as awesomely post-hip (or pre-hip, whichever is supposed to be more desirable), but the characters gradually shed their meticulously-designed skins and become real people.  Well, as real as any fictional character can hope to be.  In the book, as in the life of the average 21st-century teen, truth and beauty is hidden under a layer of makeup and faux-vintage apparel.

I’m not sure how closely the movie will follow the book, but here’s the original story:  Nick is an 18-year-old bassist for Queercore (a genre?) band The F*ck-Offs.  His bandmates (a guitarist and a singer, but no drummer) are both gay, making Nick the only straight guy in the band.  He’s just been dumped by his girlfriend Tris, who(m) he loved with a passion heretofore unknown by the likes of mortal man, even if it was only for six months.  Nick is devastated by the break-up, and can barely hold himself together on stage when she shows up three weeks later to see The Fuck Offs perform …  and already has a new boyfriend.  Desperately wanting to both avoid her and hurt her at the same time, Nick makes a bold and desperate move: He asks the girl standing next to him in the audience to be his girlfriend for the next five minutes.
Norah is a girl balancing an equal number of prospects and problems.  The genius daughter of a multi-millionaire record exec, she has decided to defer her acceptance to Brown University so she can do volunteer work at a kibbutz in South Africa.  In addition to desiring to help her fellow man, she hopes to surprise her on-again-off-again Israeli-American boyfriend Tal, who is already there doing work.  She and Tal have had their troubles in the past, and he’s even gone as far as calling her frigid, but she’s willing to change herself and her life to make things work.  So when the random-but-cute “No ‘mo” bassist for the band that just played asks her to be his girlfriend for five minutes, she’s surprisingly conflicted.  Then it hits her: This is her friend/nemesis Tris’s ex, the one who wrote songs for her while she cheated on him behind his back.  Still not sure if it’s the right thing to do, she agrees out of pity for him and spite against her.  Then the night takes on a life of its own…

The rhythm of Nick & Norah is an interesting one, in that each chapter’s narration alternates between Nick’s perspective and Norah’s.  Events overlap to varying degrees, sometimes picking up right where the previous chapter left off, other times showing the same scene from the other side’s perspective.  It makes the book relatable to both male and female readers, since it never gets too girly or too boyish.  It also allows both characters’ inner motivations to be much more clearly developed, and for actions that seem inexplicable to one to make perfect sense to the other.  You should be able to see yourself in at least one of these confused youngsters, if not both.  This also allows for two different sets of supporting characters, as both Nick and Norah have friends who interfere with their lives for better or worse (sometimes both!)  The other members of The F*ck Offs are more than stereotypical gay teens (or stereotypical musicians, for that matter) and Norah’s hard-partying best friend Caroline is not just a Tara Reid wannabe.  Even Tal and Tris get chances to show their humanity instead of falling into typical “Evil Ex” roles, which is partly helped by Tris occupying the triple role of friend/rival/cheating ex.  If they manage to keep this level of characterization in the film, it should stand apart from regular teen movie fare.

The authors certainly do make a strong effort to keep Nick & Norah hip and quirky, which can be a bit much at times.  Both teens are from Jersey (represent!) but are more comfortable wandering around Manhattan at night than anyone I knew when I was their age.  The detail used to describe everyone’s fashion choices can be a bit much, but it serves as a reminder of how important those things are to a teenager, even one in a queercore band.  They also seem to enjoy naming objects, ranging from Nick’s Yugo (Jessie) to the jacket he lends to Norah (Salvatore).  I’d tell you the significance of the name Julio, but that would be a spoiler.  Yet perhaps this was the authors’ intention, to show how hard we try to be cool when we’re that young.  I did enjoy the fact that they name-checked an equal number of real and fictional songs, making the world of Nick & Norah closely resemble ours without being tied directly to it.  They include a map of the NY metropolitan area at the beginning of the book, complete with landmarks visited throughout the story.  This is very much a New York and New Jersey love story, and I really hope the movie was shot on location.  It would be a different tale if it were in a different city.

But what about the romance?  That’s the core of the book, isn’t it?  Take it from me, this is where Nick & Norah really stands out.  The authors manage to weave a narrative that shows what happens when two very real people, with all their idiosynchracies and hang-ups, manage to connect in an increasingly isolating world.  It’s not love at first sight by any means, and these two hormonally-charged and emotionally-troubled teens can’t decide whether they desperately want each other or if they’re just desperate.  (WARNING: Things do get hot and heavy in one chapter, but it’s nothing they couldn’t show on prime-time television and no explicit words are used.) More than anything, they want to get to know each other, and that forms the crux of the story.  One of Nick’s friends sums it up when he explains that The Beatles had it right all along, that what love and relationships are really about is not a hot lay or a marriage prospect, it’s “I Wanna Hold Your Hand.”

I saw so many parallels between the story of Nick & Norah and the story of my own relationship that I couldn’t decide whether the writers were stalking us or just exceptionally good.  Obviously not everyone will be able to relate to it perfectly (after all, I wasn’t a bassist in a queercore band) but this ballad may very well strike a familiar chord or two along its way.  Even if none of the events match up to anything in your life, cohn and Levithan have done such an exceptional job of rounding out these characters that they may still feel like you and your friends.  I dare you, dear reader, to give this book a try (preferably before you see the movie) and play along at home by making your own soundtrack.  Here’s mine:

1. Teenage Bottlerocket – “So Cool”

2. Mad Caddies – “Game Show”

3. The Smiths (or Reel Big Fish f. Rachel Minton) – “Ask”

4. The Epoxies – “It’s You”

5. Green Day – “Extraordinary Girl”

6. Common Rider – “Carry On”

7. Edna’s Goldfish – “1,800 Miles to Nowhere”

8. Deal’s Gone Bad – “Movin’ On”

9. Mustard Plug – “Something New”

10. No Doubt – “Underneath It All”

11. The World/Inferno Friendship  Society – “Only Anarchists Are Pretty”

12. NOFX – “USA-Holes” (or any snotty political-punk song of your choosing)

13. The Pipettes – “Because It’s not Love (but It’s Still a Feeling”

14. The Reunion Show – “Too Much”

15. 311 – “All Mixed Up”

16. The Architects – “Help”

17. The Toasters – “Underground Train”

18. Stephanie White and the NJ Philth Harmonic – “Teardrops”

19. The Slackers – “Stars”

20. Zolof the Rock & Roll Destroyer – “This Briskness (Java)”

21. The Cure (or Goldfinger, or Codename: Rocky) – “Just Like Heaven”

22. Tim Armstrong – “Hold On”

23. Beastie Boys – “No Sleep Till Brooklyn”

24. The Gadjits – “This Could Be Permanent”

25. Cruiserweight – “There You Are”

26. The Clash – “Train in Vain (Stand by Me)”

On the offchance that there are people out there who want an annotated version of this list explaining why I picked each track, let me know.  I’ll put it as a separate entry if demand warrants.  For those who know me personally, I’ll be happy to make a copy for you.  Enjoy!

P.S.: After watching the trailer again, I’ve already noticed some big differences from the book.  Nick is now Norah’s five-minute-boyfriend (instead of the other way around), Norah’s friend Caroline has a bunch of new adventures after being driven home by the F*ck Offs, and they all apparently spend a huge chunk of time trying to find the Where’s Fluffy show, ultimately missing it.  In the book, they stumble upon the Where’s Fluffy show by coincidence in the middle of their date and get to hear at least two songs before leaving.  The rest seems to be bang-on in spirit, even if it doesn’t follow it to the letter.

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6 Responses

  1. Great review, John! Why did you bold certain songs? And I’d love a copy. I’m definitely going to read this book, though there’s a chance that I’ll see the movie first. The movie was filmed on the Lower East Side, so (most of it, at least) should be pretty accurate in terms of location.

    I’ll even volunteer to read Sex Drive and write a review with it, in conjunction with Paul Feig’s Superstud, or How I Became a 24-year-old Virgin. And I will definitely post it here (as long as I can get my login to work).

    I’m also somewhat surprised to read that The Perks of Being a Wallflower is a favorite of yours.

    Sounds like a great book. Hopefully the movie will rock as well.

  2. Oops! Those tracks were only supposed to be bold-faced on the original word document. I’ve corrected it now.

    The Perks of Being a Wallflower is an exceptional book (well, except for the left-field ending) and high in the running for my favorite non-comic book of all time. It should replace Catcher in the Rye in schools!

  3. Great review John! I’m with MM in wanting a copy of your playlist, and I would flove an explanation of the song choices!

    Also, I’m totally psyched for Nick and Nora. I can’t wait to see it, so maybe in the meantime I’ll sneak down to Barnes and Noble and read it.

  4. […] behavior than characters in their own right. My friend and co-blogger, John, wrote about the book Nick & Norah’s Infinite Playlist (a book I’ve yet to read, which is why this is merely about the film for the film’s […]

  5. […] I saw the movie, and John is right—the book is better than the movie. He’s already done an extensive review comparing the movie to the book version, so I will try not […]

  6. […] not have been interested in seeing the movie in the least. Which puts me in the minority among my co-bloggers, who liked the book more than the film. I started reading it while at the friend’s […]

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