John Corey Whaley
Atheneum Books for Young Readers
Available April 2014
Noggin is one of those novels that I call “What if?” novels. The question here is what if your head was separated from your body but wasn’t dead?
Remember when Ted Williams, the famous baseball player, died, and his son had his head cryogenically frozen? I have always wondered what, exactly, would be done with Ted’s head if and when it became medically possible to re-animate it. Would it be in a tank of liquid nutrients, like growing plants hydroponically? Would it be able to communicate? Would it qualify as being alive? Why would anyone even want to do this? If I chose to be cryogenically preserved, I would have gone whole hog and had all of me preserved. Why on earth would you just want your head frozen? It never occurred to me that another person might preserve only their body, but this option opens up all sorts of possibilities: bodies without heads can be combined with heads without bodies! This is just like grafting plants together, which is how fruit trees and many other ornamentals are propagated, where the “head” is the scion (stems leaves, flowers, and fruits of a desirable type), and the “body” is the rootstock (generally a hardier type than the scion, enabling growth in colder climates). There is occasionally even a graft involving an interstock, which might be equivalent to . . . never mind, I’m done with plant analogies.
Travis Coates is – well, was, and, then, is – a 16 year old who died of cancer, and had his head preserved. This decision was one of those decisions that teenage boys make, without really thinking through the possible consequences. Well, maybe not the frozen head part, but the impulsive aspect part that teenage boys seem to excel at. Five years later, Travis wakes up in a hospital, alive, free of cancer, and in possession of a new healthy body. And not just any healthy body, but a bulked out buff body, which used to belong to one Jeremy Pratt. Why is this new person Travis and not Jeremy? The answer is that Head seems to trump Body like a weird game of rock-paper-scissors.
There are some truly funny moments, like when Travis spills out the contents of a vase that turn out to be his cremated remains (but remember, not his head), and his dad frantically tries to sweep the ashes into a pile with his bare hands, while his mom screams for the vacuum. Well, I thought this was funny. Or when his mom makes him wear a scarf around his neck, because there is a ring around his neck, you know, where the doctors sewed his head on. And girls seem to think this is cool, as Travis soon discovers. Or when Travis is alone for the first time since he came back to life, and he takes his clothes off to check out his . . . interstock. You know what I mean.
Travis never really expected to come back to life, nor did anybody else expect him to. It was one of those white elephant situations where nobody wanted to come right out and say that Travis was really really sick, that he was going to die much too young, and that was going to be the end of it. In a weird way, Travis thought it would help his family and friends if they thought there might be a possibility of him just going away for awhile. In the same way, his family and friends thought Travis needed to believe that he wasn’t really going to die. Maybe they thought Travis was trying to help them come to terms with his impending death too. Death comes with so much baggage. People are afraid to talk about it.
A small part of Travis thought that if he returned – what teenager ever really expects that they might not be around? – it would be in the far future, not five years later. He returns, and is shocked to discover that things have changed. His room is different. His stuff is gone. His girlfriend is engaged. His parents are divorced, although they hide this from him for a long time. Life does go on, even after a tragedy. People get through it, they heal, and they move on. Five years is a long time for an adolescent, and all of Travis’s friends have grown. They have graduated high school, finished college, and gotten jobs. Travis is stuck in the past, since it feels like he just went to sleep and then woke up, but life has changed for his friends and family. Just imagine if someone you loved died and came back to life a few years later. No matter how much the dead person is missed, trying to re-integrate them into your changed life would be incredibly difficult. Travis gets stuck in his past, trying to recreate it, but no one else lives there anymore. Travis must reconcile his past with the realities of his present in order to be able to move into his future, and he can only do this when he accepts that he can’t preserve people in the past, he can only accept them as they are in the future.
~ Lysbeth Abrams