Recently longlisted for the National Book Award for Young People’s Literature, John Corey Whaley’s eagerly awaited second novel, Noggin, promises second chances: life after death. Or not death, quite, but whatever happens when a head is removed from a cancer-ridden body and cryogenically frozen for five years, waiting for science to catch up. And catch up it has, only 16-year-old Travis Coates didn’t anticipate waking up to a second chance so quickly, leaving his former adolescence just out of reach. His friends have graduated high school, and his girlfriend, Cate, is engaged to another man. But if Travis can outsmart death, he can surely win his old life back.
Thus the novel’s quest begins. It’s a twist on the Young Adult genre’s obsession with romance, and a welcome one at that. The handholding and first kisses are long past, but Travis’s memories of Cate’s devotion during his final days leave the reader rooting for the pair. That is, until the pining engulfs Travis’s world; unsurprising for a teenager, but as the second-ever-successful head transplantee (the first-ever returned to a wife, children, and happiness), we expect more from Travis. As does the world in the novel: he’s heralded as a miracle on cable news and repeatedly called an “inspiration” in the hundreds of letters he receives. Travis, the kid-who-died, sort of. What will he do with his second chance, lived out in a new body that is cancer-free and, this time around, strikingly athletic.
Cancer is the tuberculosis of contemporary fiction and leukemia its killer of choice. Whaley upends this trope, introducing us to a character who, on the brink of death, opts to have his head chopped off and frozen, risking the remaining weeks of his life for an unlikely second chance. The novel defies our understanding of medicine, physiology, and mortality, beginning where so many other stories end: a motionless patient, a hospital bed, and teary parents. This scene is not narrated posthumously, but from the newly reanimated Travis, now connected to the body of a young man whose brain was ravaged by a tumor. The boy whose head is okay lives to tell the tale.
We’re asked to peer through this teenage lens on the mind-body problem on Travis’s first night home, as he shuts himself in a bedroom stripped of his past. “Imagine most of you is suddenly someone else, and this is the first moment of privacy you’ve gotten.” Here we watch Travis grapple with the passage of five years (during which his consciousness did not exist) through a body that spent those five years guided by another’s consciousness:
The weirdest part, truly, was realizing I’d been doing all this undressing and examining and making sure the door was locked with hands that were different than my hands, with hands that had never touched Cate or knuckle-bumped with Kyle or opened my locker at school. These were Jeremy Pratt’s clever hands, and they’d fooled me into thinking they were mine.
Travis now possesses Jeremy’s skateboarding abilities, yet his new hands fail to match his mind’s agility when playing his beloved arcade game, Space Invaders. Those hands are now ashes, which Travis discovers and drops the vase of, as there is “no delicate way to tell a person that he is holding a container full of the incinerated remains of his own body.” Near the novel’s end, when Travis’s friends guide him toward closure by dumping his body’s ashes on Jeremy’s grave, we meet his new body’s mother and young sister. This stirring encounter, in which Travis extends his hand, Jeremy’s former hand, for the sister to hold, both challenges and affirms a sense of mind-body dualism: “even though that hand that spent the last five years holding hers was somehow doing it again, it wasn’t Jeremy Pratt’s anymore.” While the mind and body remain distinct, Whaley’s novel envisions a world where they are now transferrable. As we follow Travis and his new body back to his old school, he’s simultaneously regarded as a medical miracle and a freak of science; at one point, Travis finds his mother watching cable news pundits debating the ethics of his reanimated existence, and the novel poses these questions to the reader as well.
What Travis chooses to do with his second chance—pine, relentlessly, for his former girlfriend—at once makes him very human and the novel often very slow. This slowness is exacerbated by the novel’s conventional structure; the reader slogs through Travis’s reintegration in what can feel like real time. Every day Travis wakes up; every day Travis pines. It seems Whaley is at his best when disregarding time as something linear. We get glimpses of this gift as Travis longingly recalls his first go-round with life, told through flashbacks that acquaint us with Cate and with Travis’s family. But Noggin delivers nothing close to the structural brilliance of Where Things Come Back, which meanders through the stories of two young men and then slams them into a climax. Given Noggin’s ambitious premise, it’s perhaps understandable that Whaley shies away here from structural and temporal play. However, as we await the author’s third novel, let’s hope the subject matter doesn’t overshadow his gift for storytelling.