If I heard music beamed to earth by an alien civilization, my first thought would be to whip out my phone and try to look it up on iTunes. Actually, my first thought would be ‘I really need a change of underwear.’ Also, I think if there is intelligent life in the universe and they’re driving along enjoying the cosmos, when they see Earth they’d hit the door lock mechanism and beat feet on out of there.
In Ryan Gebhart’s Of Jenny and the Aliens, the people of Earth have sent messages into outer space to see if anything would answer back. Ten years later, something does. (Seems about right. Takes a dude about ten years to text me back.) Derek is a high school senior living with his single mother. On the night the alien message, in the form of music, is heard on Earth, Derek goes to a body painting party to celebrate because hey, what else are you going to do when you hear music from another world? You go to a party, get blasted on booze and whatever weed is floating around and hope someone there is drunk or stoned enough to take you home.
At the party, there’s talk going around that the aliens might invade and everyone’s imagining alien enslavement. Except for Derek. He doesn’t give a toss because Jenny, a girl he’s had a crush on for years, is at the party. And walking around topless. I’m not talking strutting about in a bra. She’s in full skin mode and poor Derek, being a 17-year-old boy, has no idea how to not openly gawk at her. She’s talking to him, paying attention to him when he thought she didn’t even know who he was.
Short story long, they walk to her house where she puts on Snow White and the Seven Dwarves and Derek loses his virginity to her. Derek’s immediately in love and starts imagining their life together. After she falls asleep, he walks home deciding to stop by a local river. Derek lies down on the riverbank and looks into the sky but something else catches his attention. There’s someone on a tiny island hiding behind a tree. He sees a hand with horrifically long fingers splayed out against the tree trunk. And then he sees a baby deer and he thinks he’s still just a little drunk and makes his way home.
When he gets home it’s five in the morning and his mom is still awake. She’s glued to the TV where there’s a breaking news alert that NASA discovered a link in the alien music. It’s a video. It shows a planet that is remarkably like Earth but a little bigger. The camera pans to show strange animals as big as elephants grazing in a cornfield. They’re a cross between dinosaurs and something with feathers. The video shows a run down ranch house. The camera spots someone (something?) on the porch. It’s a small being with grey skin with mottled patches of color everywhere. It has large eyes and two slits in its face where a nose would be. It appears to struggle to speak. It says it enjoyed the music we sent out and hoped Earth liked the music he sent back. But God oh God, it has rows and rows of sharp shark-like teeth. Why so many nightmare teeth?
After seeing the alien, the world goes into chaotic survival mode. Everyone heads to the grocery store to stock up on supplies, thinking that at any moment flying saucers are going to drop from the sky and start in on the anal probing Olympics. I think my first instinct would be a healthy spike of fear but hey, at least the music they shared with us wasn’t Kanye West. I think that right there would be cause for an invasion.
Derek isn’t worried about the possible alien invasion because he just lost his virginity and is in love. He’s thinking Jenny might be in love with him too. But there’s something a little broken about her. Last summer her brother, a Navy SEAL, was killed on a mission in Raya. She and Derek become almost inseparable for two weeks. He takes her to the river after telling her about the strange noises and long fingers he’d seen by the trees. He tells her to get her camera out and start taking pictures. He swims across the river and is cracked on the head by the alien he saw a few nights ago.
When he comes to, Jenny is long gone and he’s sitting next to an alien smoking a joint. The alien has on jeans, a sports jacket and an orange turtleneck. He’s short, maybe 4 feet tall. They begin a halting conversation about sports and life back on his planet. The alien’s name is Karo. Lights and sirens are beginning to appear and Karo leaves. Jenny went to the police saying Derek had been assaulted. She captured a good picture of the alien. Derek says he’s fine, just tried to do something stupid like swim across in frigid waters to the small island.
In addition to the alien situation, all is not well in Love Land. Jenny is moody and isn’t as into the monogamous lifestyle that Derek prefers. In fact, she’s messing about with one of his best friends. Heartbroken, Derek wants a way to win her back. There’s a credible rumor that America is about to send 200,000 troops into Raya and it will likely be an all out war. Jenny makes an impossible promise to him. If he can stop the war in Raya, she’ll be his girlfriend. So what does Derek decide to do? He decides to try to get the aliens to help him stop the war so Jenny will be his. I’ve done some truly stupid things to get someone to like me (remember making a crush a mix-tape of your favorite songs?) but Derek is about to go over the top.
Of Jenny and the Aliens is told in a heartbreaking voice of first love. Yeah there are aliens in it, but at its core the novel is about love and the seemingly ridiculous lengths humans go to keep it. If you don’t have PTSD about your first teenage love (I still have fond nightmares about mine), grab this book and listen to the wisdom sung by the universe. Or whatever.