School’s back! I guess I’m at a funny age. I’m old enough to fool myself into thinking I miss the excitement of a new school year, but I’m also young enough to remember all of the terror, uncertainty, and anxiety that I experienced throughout middle and high school. Because of my job, I’m also fortunate to spend a lot of time with tweens and teens, both in the library and when I visit schools, and I am constantly amazed at how many teens seem so much more articulate, organized, and driven than I feel now, let alone compared to my own teenage years. I guess all of this is to say, WOW the adolescent years can be weird!
Noah Oakman, the 16-year-old narrator of David Arnold’s The Strange Fascinations of Noah Hypnotik, seems to understand this fact better than most. Noah certainly has his quirks: inspired by his favorite poets and philosophers, Noah has taken to wearing the same outfit every day, what his friends refer to as his “navy bowies” (navy pants and a David Bowie shirt). It’s not just that Noah likes these clothes. He also appreciates that they allow him to avoid wasting time and energy deciding what to wear. Noah also tends to get lost in his own thoughts and has peculiar obsessions which include an old man he sees walking the same route each day, a strange yet wonderful YouTube video, and a photo dropped by a local rock star. These are a few of Noah’s titular strange fascinations.
Outside of his unique interests, Noah leads a fairly normal life. He has loving parents, two great friends, seems just popular enough to float by in high school, and is a good enough swimmer to garner some serious scholarship interest from colleges. But Noah is also supremely stressed out. His senior year is beginning bringing with it the end of an era for him and his two long-time friends. He doesn’t fully understand his little sister and worries how she will fit in with those around her. And despite being a good swimmer, he secretly loathes the sport and has no idea how to tell those around him. Rather than confront this final problem he is faking a back injury, a lie that seems to be leading him into an ever-deepening hole of deceit.
All of these stresses are wearing Noah down, which is why he finds himself drinking far too much at an end of summer party and following home a strange young man who promises to help him “exit the robot.” When Noah wakes the next morning, everything seems to have changed: his DC obsessed friend now only reads Marvel comics; his mother has an old scar on her face that was not there the day before; his old, useless, and mute dog has regained its youth and its shrill yap. Noah does not understand what has happened and fears for his sanity. As he tries to gain some level of comprehension, he discovers that his fascinations seem to be the one constant between his old life and new. He hopes that understanding the connections between these fixations might be the key to a return to normalcy or at least the closest thing he has ever known to that.
Though at times Noah is a bit pretentious, perhaps even mopey, I found it easy to root for him. He is a bundle of anxiety and self-doubt and genuinely seems to struggle to understand the value he offers to those around him. Arnold has shown in his previous work that he has a keen understanding of the teenage years and the impact that the strange mix of social pressure, ennui, feelings of isolation, and turbulent emotions can have on a developing brain and this latest work is no different. It is as odd and disorienting as it is genuine and warm-hearted. If you’re looking for a strange trip through a teen-aged mind, buckle up and grab The Strange Fascinations of Noah Hypnotik.