The Carls just appeared. Coming home from work at three a.m., twenty-three-year-old April May stumbles across a giant sculpture. Delighted by its appearance and craftsmanship–like a ten-foot-tall Transformer wearing a suit of samurai armor–April and her friend Andy make a video with it, which Andy uploads to YouTube. The next day April wakes up to a viral video and a new life. News quickly spreads that there are Carls in dozens of cities around the world–everywhere from Beijing to Buenos Aires–and April, as their first documentarian, finds herself at the center of an intense international media spotlight.
Now April has to deal with the pressure on her relationships, her identity, and her safety that this new position brings, all while being on the front lines of the quest to find out not just what the Carls are, but what they want from us.
Fortunate happenstance has led to me reading this book with absolutely no prior knowledge to what it was about. I’ve just grown tired with John Green romanticizing the white heterosexual nerd’s quest for the perfect woman whom they win by using the longest most pretentious words possible, and I was very curious to read his brother’s work.
Frankly, I expected to tumble into this book dissonant and harsh in my criticism—but what do you know…I actually liked it. (If you look really closely, there’s probably a lesson here somewhere lol.)
So what’s this book about?
April May, a twenty-three-year-old bisexual art-school grad languishing in a Manhattan startup, inadvertently makes first contact with an alien when she happens upon a ten-feet tall Transformers-like sculpture. She calls her YouTuber bestfriend Andy and together they upload a faux-serious interview with the statue which they dub Carl, with no way of knowing that the curtain is about to rise on a drama of their own invention when the video goes exponentially viral and many Carls materialize in cities around the world.
The unascertained intention of the Carls, enormous as it loomed, was not the only thing weighing on April’s mind. She is now a celebrity, hated and loved with equal ferocity, and when people start getting besieged by perplexing dreams of the Carls making, April takes upon herself the inconvenience of persuading everyone that the Carls are a peaceful entity and not whatever maleficent meaning many want to suit to their existence.
April soon finds out that the fame that tied her to the Carls made the world—and maybe even her closest friends—love her a little less. Closeness to one, it seems, means distance from the other. And celebrity comes with a price.
A year ago, I watched the world fall in love with my best friend. We thought it would be fun, we thought it would be silly, but then that love tore her apart and put her back together different. April and I, alone in a hotel room, plotted to change her from a person into a story. It worked. It worked because it was a great story, and one that fit her. We did not know that she would actually become it. The most insidious part of fame for April wasn’t that other people dehumanized her; it was that she dehumanized herself.
I couldn’t put this book down. I pursued the plot blindly, like in a dream compelled by some great mysterious force to move forward. This is not a thriller by any means, and not what I’d call a page-turner. There was no urgency in my reading, no overwhelming desire to see what happens next—yet I found myself deeply engrossed and utterly content to spend more time with a story where the supernatural felt genuinely weird, a little off-putting, and entirely seductive. Hank’s simplistic and often overly conversational writing style is not for everyone, but it worked for me. It’s also full of lengthy passages of technical exposition about everything from physics to neurology, which can get too leaden at times, but I think Hank’s sheer joy in imparting these ideas beams through like a laser more often than not.
Our protagonist, April May, is the narrator, and her first-person account is…full of personality. She’s what you would call “very unlikeable”, but in the way an unlikeable character who doesn’t soften up or sugarcoats the less than pleasant aspects of their personalities and with whom you can—to your great horror—assimilate would be. Her character is lackadaisically wry, flawed, potentially unreliable, but at the core benevolent and well-intentioned and always immensely engaging.
Sure, I grappled with the impulse to yell at her countless times when her selfish confidence pushes past refreshing and well into repellent and puts everyone around her in danger. But I understood the extraordinary dread of desperately wanting to be a part of something extraordinary and watching the opportunity slip through your fingers. I also felt for her when everyone begun to strip away everything she was until it was small enough to fit into the story they’ve made up about her. More than anything—and I hate to admit this—I’ve come to realize that the things I disliked about her were things I disliked about myself: the unnameable need to be liked, the kind of selfishness that is putting up so many walls around yourself that you can’t see anyone or anything beyond your own problems, and sometimes being—for lack of an apter term—a spectacularily shitty friend.
But Hank not only weaves together a suspenseful tale of April’s involvement with an alien sculpture and her quest to figure out its origin and intent, he also does so with sly social commentary, and, for me, that was the best part.
Hank Green created a story with great deep undercurrents. Under the surface is a very forward and honest discussion about social media and the uncomfortable commodification of the self it perpetuates, and a reminder that a person’s online presence is only a fraction of their personhood, and how we all—knowingly or unknowingly—peddle out every profitable aspects of our personalities on the internet for the very attention most of us would hate to receive in real life. The insights Green drops in through his characters about the process of suddenly finding oneself to be internet famous are also sharp and perfect. Especially how trying to find yourself through your feed and measuring your self-esteem on likes and comments eventually creates an alternate version of yourself that you can only attain at the price of laborious efforts, and that ultimately obfuscates your very sense of self and puts you between a fantasized—but not less real—you behind a screen, and the real you, who becomes more and more fictional.
This book also hammers at social-media for glamourizing and rewarding the worst of human attributes (vanity, exaggerated self-importance, materialism, deception, envy, ostentation, narcissism, superiority, etc…) and conditioning people into believing that any of these traits are positive or favorable. Hank is serving some seriously scorching tea about social media, let me tell you.
Which is why it’s difficult not to be disappointed by the book’s second-half shift away from real relationships with clear and present stakes in favor of pursuing a meandering plot that builds up to what I think was a trite ending, but it’s a disappointment experienced mostly in retrospect because, as it turns out, this is not a standalone. And I’m really intrigued to see where and how this story unfolds.
Moreover, This book was quite frankly more diverse than any of John Green’s books [insert the I SAID WHAT I SAID gif meme]: April is bisexual and her girlfriend Maya is a sapphic black woman. Hank also calls out white privilege and bi-erasure.
Overall, this was an immensely riveting, witty book, and I was thoroughly absorbed!