After reading John Corey Whaley’s freshman novel, Where Things Come Back (2011), I had ridiculously high expectations for his sophomore follow-up, Noggin (2014). Right out of the gate his first novel had earned him a golden sticker in the form of the Michael L. Printz award, and with the William C. Morris award also gracing the front cover, the book silently (and justly) bragged on itself as it sat on bookstore shelves all across the country. I won’t lie; I had a little anxiety that Noggin had the potential to earn Whaley the badge of Sophomore Slump. After all, it is not often that a novel with such accolades leads to subsequent novels with equal success. As it turns out, Noggin was a National Book Award finalist; thus, Whaley’s name was officially solidified as a powerful voice in contemporary young adult literature.
As the novel begins, protagonist Travis Coates is rudely awakened to the aftermath of his “cranial reanimation.” That’s right, you heard me: Travis has had a head transplant. Out of desperation, sixteen-year-old Travis undergoes an experimental procedure in the wake of failed attempts to cure his acute lymphoblastic leukemia. After a five-year nap, Travis is astonished to learn that the procedure had been a success: his head had been chopped off, cryogenically frozen, and reattached to a donor body. His new body (from the neck down) has given him a few more inches in height and tons more muscle mass. All of this would be great, right? Coming back from the dead, exempt from the disease that had plagued him, and with an upgraded physical form sounds like a dream come true…except that everyone he knew before is five years older, and his place in their lives is now uncertain.
Travis’s mission is to set his new-and-improved, second life right by making everyone else relive the past. His now 21-year-old best friend Kyle and (former?) girlfriend Cate are forced to choose whether or not they should soldier onward with their lives or if they should turn their backs on the progress they have made over the past five years. The passing of time means little to Travis. He went to sleep and then simply woke back up. However, the others have long since mourned his passing, moved on, and are maneuvering their way through adulthood. The situation is quite a conundrum, and no one seems to know what do. Unfortunately, Travis does not see it that way; he is impatient and doesn’t appreciate their current positions. This creates a great deal of tension and a string of impulse reactions on Travis’s part. His parents try to cushion the impact, but they, too, are trying to deal with the reality that he is back again and what that means for their family.
Whaley is a master craftsman when it comes to character development. A sign of a well-developed character is if he/she seems authentic. Travis Coates feels like the average kid down the street. He is flawed, he makes mistakes, he is completely self-absorbed, and he lacks impulse control. Travis has good, yet misguided, intentions, and he screws up things for himself in a big way. What could be more real than that? I kept wondering when Travis would put everything back in order for himself and be his own hero, but Whaley is not one to wrap up his narrative with a big red shiny bow. His stories have a genuine and authentic style that can seem melancholy at times, but upon further inspection is just honest and raw. Being a normal teenager is difficult, and one does not emerge completely unscathed. There are usually some emotional scars involved, and Travis just so happens to wear his scar visibly around his neck.
Whaley skillfully balances the tragedy with the comedy. While the plot is a bit heavy, Travis and his new friend Hatton are not without a healthy dose of wit and sarcasm, and they deliver plenty of hilarious one-liners. There is just the right amount of oddity, too. Perhaps my favorite dose of quirk is a band called “Judd Nelson’s Fist” (174). I mean, come on! Brilliant. The absurdity of the plot seamlessly blends with the genuineness of the characters, and there are times when the reader forgets that Travis is a modern-day monster of Frankenstein. In a sense, the blend of tragedy and comedy mirrors Travis’s new body composition, and it is beautiful.
Some readers will thirst for more science in the novel. For example, little about the logistics of the actual surgery is explained. Some might feel that Travis’s adjustment to his new body is skimped over. However, most readers will be okay without the minute details. Whaley makes it easy to forget that the reader is immersed in a work of science fiction because he says he never meant for it to be a sci-fi novel. Whaley accomplished what he set out to do. The novel’s universal themes carry through beautifully. Though this book is technically a work of science fiction (Despite Whaley’s rejection of the sci-fi label, the copyright page deems that it is, in fact, sci-fi.), the premise is not too far from reality: it was just announced that the first head transplant is slated for 2017.
Noggin is a beautiful story of loss and second chances. It’s about the dangers of looking backward instead of looking ahead. More than anything, it examines the science of love and friendship, and it proclaims that the bonds of love are stronger than any passage of time or catastrophe.