BOOKS: petpluto Reviews Nick & Norah’s Infinite Playlist

I’ve seen the movie; I’ve read my friends’ reviews of the book. And now I’ve read the book (a book I conveniently stole from another friend, who needs the book back due to it being a library book). And I have to say, I’m pretty glad I saw the movie before I read the book; otherwise, I would 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 house I then liberated it from, and I was immediately drawn in to its teen-pretentiousness, and its less than stellar writing. And this may partially be because I have really never been into YA novels; I was reading The Odyssey when I was in fifth grade, so I kind of missed this important book category. But my initial review of the book is this (and it helps if you’ve seen Sports Night to appreciate the inflection of the words): “Took two people to write that [book]?” Now, Isaac was speaking of the song Happy Birthday, but I think the incredulity of his response still stands.

It isn’t just that there are lines like, “My heart understands the direction we’re going in, because it starts pounding like it’s got something really damn important to say, and by the time I’m out of my head enough to really use my eyes, there’s someone in our way, and that someone is the girl who took the key to my heart and swallowed it with a smile” – a sentence that makes me, a former run-on queen, wince. It is that the separation between Norah and Nick in terms of thoughts and style and even personality is almost nonexistent. And if I were feeling generous, I would interpret that as being part of the point of the thing, that these two people are meant for one another and really just two pieces of the whole; and not in the Harry and Sally way, or the Luke-Lorelai way, where one is a ying and the other a yang but in a way where the two are both yingish. The yangs come in the form of half formed friends and frenemies, like Caroline the oft-drunk and strangely vacant, and Dev the sweet guy-slut, and Tris the classic bitch-whore. The yangs are the counterweight, but even with the free-lovin’ feel of the book, the permissive “anything goes” teen culture the Far Right decries, Tris is (even with her vague redemptive arc) still a bitch-whore who cheats on Nick and Caroline is still the drunk who hooks up with almost anyone willing while her saintly friend Norah puts up with both that and her parents’ unending devotion to her.

Watching the movie, I got why Norah was who she was, without the backstory and without the poor-little-rich-girl bravado the book-Norah encompassed. Kat Dennings infused that into the character, that self-effacement, that lack of self-esteem, that tough-but-sweet, that somewhat schizophrenic back and forth. By virtue of having an actual physical being personifying the character, Norah became more of a person and more understandable than the Norah of the book. In the movie, I didn’t question Norah’s devotion to Caroline, even when I wondered what could spark it, because I saw that devotion in action. In the book, there was no true explanation; Caroline was against Norah dating Tal, but that and a slightly sweet voice message was the whole of Caroline’s virtues. We had a partial explanation for Caroline’s twin bed at Norah’s and her drinking ways in Norah’s passing mention of her mother’s death and her father’s dating life thereafter, but all that served was to make me more interested in Caroline’s story than in Norah’s and Nick’s. And Nick; where to start with Nick. I understand John’s assertion that the Nick in the book is not a Michael Cera-type character, and I even agree. The problem with Nick in the book is pretty much the same problem of Nick in the movie, and that is he is too hung up on an ex that never really seemed all that hung up on him. But – again – the Nick in the movie had the virtue of being more than just words (and at times completely trite words) on a page. He had Michael Cera to flesh him out a little bit more. And although I was highly perturbed by the scene in the film when Nick left Tris at the pier in New York City without a coat and no readily apparent way back to a more highly populated and less threatening area, the idea of the scene where Nick chooses Norah over another rumble with Tris was something I felt was lacking in the book. Yes, Nick talks about how, for the first time, he isn’t happy to see Tris after spending hours with Norah; but the act of actively choosing to pursue this thing with Norah instead of having Tris give him to Norah makes both Nick and Norah seem like better people in the movie than in the book. There is that moment for Norah, when she has the chance to go back to Tal when she is in the cab and chooses not to; Tal doesn’t ‘give’ Norah to Nick in the same way Tris “generously” gives Nick to Norah. Norah chooses that her toxic and chemistry-free relationship with Tal is over, finito, and done, even without the benefit of believing that Nick will be there for her. She chooses that, for herself. And it makes Norah a stronger character. But with Nick, I never get the feeling that he is doing anything more than puppy-dog following the next girl who catches his eye and who his ex recommends. That is a problem for me.

What is also a problem for me is Tris; not completely and not totally. But the way she deigned to give Nick to Norah seemed like it was supposed to be her redemptive moment, and instead it made me hate her and strongly dislike both Nick and Norah as well. The Tris in the movie was at best half a character, and a full on bitch. But the Tris in the book had real potential to be a semi-likable character, her cheating ways not withstanding. John brought up the whole driving Norah to get a pregnancy test thing as the part of Tris that made her more human than what the movie gave us; I disagree. The part of Tris’ description that made me want to delve deeper into her story was this: “Tris thought our arrival at her school meant the arrival of kindred spirits for her, and she followed us around like a puppy dog, wanting in on our Manhattan music scene. She didn’t get that Caroline and I have always strictly been a Gang of Two. Tris thinks she’s one of us since she likes the same music and no one at that school would have her, a freak like me and Caroline.” I felt for that girl, that girl who was lost because she was a freak, but not freakish or cool enough for the only other two people in the school who were even somewhat like her. That made Tris human in a way that her later giving of Nick took away. Because Nick isn’t a thing to give away, and stooping to do so is not only tacky but grating and a faux-superior way.

There were things I liked about the book; I thought the conversation about tikkun olam, a conversation transposed well from book to movie, was a good one. I thought the description of sexuality being not one or the other but a wide spectrum was good as well. The moments when the characters were real and clear and achingly, painfully, earnest worked, and worked well. The problem was there seemed to be far too few of those moments. These teenagers were playing at sophistication, and I couldn’t help but feel if they could just – would just – shake that off they would be okay. And maybe, if these were real people and not just characters on a page, one day they will.

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2 Responses

  1. Book snob.

  2. Seriously, though, I think we both reacted to this book a bit differently. I saw the triteness and cringe-worthiness of it as part of the high school experience, where everyone thinks they’re the greatest poet in the universe and that no one can possibly understand the pain they feel. And as for Nick not getting over an ex that never really seemed that hung up on him, the same could be said for Romeo and Rosaline (which is likely what they were going for.) I thought the characters’ voices sounded suitably different, and I maintain that a young Jason Segel would’ve been perfect for the role (too bad he had to grow up!) But most of all, I’m just happy you posted šŸ˜›

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