What Is Real?

*I received What Is Real as part of my CLA YABA jury duties

Reading this book made me feel like I was on drugs. I’ve never actually done drugs, mostly because I like to be in control and the out of control nature of being on them terrifies me. It also reminded me of being very sick, you know when you’re fever is so high you get delirious or you’re in so much pain you can’t really process anything else…those feelings I’m familiar with and so I had a hard time enjoying the book, it made me dizzy picturing things through Dex’s perspective.

“maybe we laughed so much, we used up our quota” (131)

The most notable thing about the plot is that the narrator is completely unreliable. He’s high most of the time, and even when you understand what he’s saying you can’t be sure what he’s seeing is real. He’s also a compulsive liar, lying to himself almost as much as to others. The way he loses himself in drugs and depression is expertly portrayed,

“I’m shedding pieces of me like someone with some kind of invisible leprosy”. (37)

I think it’s easy to sink into the sadness of his situation, to feel his dreams slipping away.

“Feral’s addiction erased me” (63)

Despite the fact that the book was too drug riddled for me to enjoy very much personally I respect Karen Rivers for fabulous writing. There are some haunted metaphors I don’t think I will forget.

“So she left Dad and became someone else, someone unrecognizable.She morphed as easily as a caterpillar. But we were the cocoon that had to be torn open so she could become some kind of creepy, unrecognizable butterfly, flying away.” (21)

The abandonment issues kids of divorced families feel are beautifully developed in this story.

“this shitty town felt like a sweater I’d outgrown years ago that I was trying to pull back on and it wasn’t working” (66)

It’s very difficult to move back to somewhere you were nostalgic about and discover it’s not quite the image in your mind.

“from the outside it looked like the school is vomiting kids in fits and starts, finally spitting out the last few stragglers and then leaning over, done” (85)

Dex’s unusual interpretations of school as he sits watching it from the outside are really interesting. There is a scene where he is too physically hurt and depressed to get out of his car, so he sits there the entire school day and is horrified by the fact that no one notices him there. Apathy is a prevailing theme, and the reader is left feeling sick at the idea of no one helping Dex, no one noticing when he stops talking because he’s too depressed to keep up appearances anymore, no one noticing Tanis’ scars. The lack of action about the abuse of foster kids and a teenage boy expected to care for his suicidal paralyzed father will be shocking to some but this is the idea, that we need to be shocked out of our apathy.

This novel is not for everyone. Not everyone will be able to handle the way it jumps around, the way Dex frames everything with his imaginary camera- distancing himself from his life by turning it into a movie. But it is masterfully done and I’m curious about other books River has written.

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